Review: The Blue Lagoon

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

I’ve never read Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s 1903 novel and I must have passed up the 1948 British film version, with Jean Simmons and Donald Houston in the featured roles, 20 times on television; for that matter, until Showtime delivers me from this specific ignorance within the next month or so, I remain one of the 42 people under, well, 42 in the Continental United States who have never seen Randal Kleiser’s Grease. Hence I am not in a position to speak of childhood classics, arthouse faves, or directorial careers betrayed. I can only say that the new movie version of The Blue Lagoon is about as dead-in-the-water an experience as you’re likely to encounter this summer season. Nestor Almendros having demonstrated that he can photograph something as putatively uncinematic as a conversation and have it come out looking ravishing, I experienced nothing like a shock of discovery upon seeing him do the same for tropical sunsets, jungle, and beach. Basil Poledouris likewise demonstrated the affinity of his musical extravaganzas to sunstruck water in Milius’s Big Wednesday; but there his music operated in the service of a directorial passion that fairly engulfed the screen (even if it never managed to serve up enough narrative substance), whereas in the context of The Blue Lagoon passion would be not so much a dirty word as just inappropriate and a trifle bewildering.

Like the Omniverous Zoetrope version of The Black Stallion, Randal Kleiser’s The Blue Lagoon bypasses the sheer excitement in its card-carrying mythic subject—girl and boy, distinctly prepubescent, are cast ashore in Paradise and grow to young adulthood one with Nature—to generate one TV-commercial/poster-art image after another. One thing The Black Stallion‘s Carroll Ballard didn’t need to worry about was behavioral reticence on the part of his principals (boy and horse). But Kleiser has not only undertaken to make a film whose cast is effectively restricted to two for four-fifths of its length—he has filled those roles with two performers whose capabilities might be described most charitably as amateur, and chosen for his leading lady a forcefed Star who undercuts the very ethics/aesthetics on which the movie is based. Translation: Pretty Baby was enough a’ready, Brooke Shields ain’t gonna take off her clothes no more. Well, all right, she’ll take them off now and again, but only if the meticulous haircomber and -paster who kept the Tahitian chests in Mutiny on the Bounty family-movie-clean ensure that the strategic zones remain under wraps. The rest of the time, an unacknowledged young wanton makes herself available for underwater nude silhouettes and the occasional breast stroking on land. The need to accommodate salient body parts and the occasional verifying closeup of the star herself within a single take involves real contortions of mise-en-scène; mostly Kleiser settles for dissociative montage that celebrates Christopher Atkins’s relationships with a face without a breast and a breast without a face. As Jack Kroll has observed, all pretensions toward the healthy hedonistic innocence of this island idyll tend to be deep-sixed by the circumspection of those celebrating the innocence.

But we needn’t bare our pedophile credentials to protest this flaccid film. Sufficient to note that, on an island small enough that the sea can be viewed in all directions when the characters climb to its highest point, our nubile heroine and hero go undiscovered—for years—by the cannibalistic (or at least bloodthirsty) types who frequent, if not inhabit, the other side of the place. Their bloody shrine has its part to play in an allusive scenario wherein menstruation and death and birth and a fledgling sense of cosmology are supposed to bleed together in rich suggestibility; it also hints at a good oldfashioned order of movie threat that feebly attempts to supply a tension that The Blue Lagoon sorely lacks on all other counts. The children-become-lovers eventually opt not to hail the rescue ship they have watched for for years, then inadvertently place themselves in the way of discovery when they’re trapped in their boat (a relic of their arrival) adrift at sea. Handily enough, they had some of these poisonous island berries with them at the time (whaaa!?), and have just gorbed a handful, preferring to “sleep and never wake up” rather than shrivel without fresh water. Rather than return to Civilization, too? That’s the heavy number Kleiser leaves us with as he slow-zooms out from their boat and the rescuers’ nestling alongside. Or is even that cliché conundrum overloading this dumbly, numbly pretty trifle?

© 1981 Richard T. Jameson

THE BLUE LAGOON

Direction: Randal Kleiser. Screenplay: Douglas Day Stewart, after the novel by Henry DeVere Stacpoole. Cinematography: Nestor Almendros; additional cinematography: Vincent Monton; underwater photography: Ron Taylor, Valerie Taylor. Art direction: Jon Dowding. Costumes: Jean-Pierre Dorleac. Editing: Robert Gordon. Music: Basil Poledouris. Production: Randal Kleiser, Richard Franklin.
The players: Brooke Shields, Christopher Atkins, Leo McKern, William Daniels, Elva Josephson, Glenn Kohan.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.