Calling M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film “disappointing” isn’t fair, because at this point in his career nobody has high expectations of the filmmaker who started out so promisingly with The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), and Signs (2002), before plummeting into the abyss of The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013). The question with a new Shyamalan isn’t whether it’ll be any good, but just how bad it’ll be.
With Old, the answer is that, while certainly not the worst thing he’s made, it’s a long way from the quality of his earlier work, and falls short of the passable standard set by Split (2016). It’s on par with The Happening (2008), and somewhat resembles a smaller-scale version of that movie: great concept, flawed execution. It’s a solid premise spoiled by cack-handed writing and many eccentric, even nonsensical touches.
There’s nothing to complain about in Shyamalan’s visual flair or Mike Gioulakis’s cinematography, as the unusual and varied camera angles typical of Shyamalan work perfectly well, conferring an eeriness upon each frame, as do other characteristic Shyamalan touches such as the unvaried lighting (here mostly bright) and the fascination with slightly odd human faces. Also worthy of note on a technical level is the work of the makeup department, which is crucial to a movie where most of the characters grow significantly older.
But all the value created by this effective presentation is destroyed by Shyamalan’s own screenplay, which is unrealistic, repetitive, and full of information dumps and statements of the obvious. (Nobody in real life would ever, ever say “we’re on a remote undeveloped island but we have a doctor here”). It’s also festooned with bizarre tics like the repeated emphasis on people’s jobs. In the midst of a shocking crisis, Prisca (Vicky Krieps) just decides to announce she’s a museum curator, which bears no relevance either to her situation or to the broader narrative.
The broad outline of the plot will be familiar from the trailers. Prisca and Guy (Gael García Bernal) arrive with their two children at the luxurious tropical island resort of Anamika. The manager suggests a day trip to a particular beach (“a natural anomaly… I only recommend it to certain guests”), which has an ‘Off Limits’ sign, and the camera zooms to a close-up. This the first indication something is wrong, and also that the director simply can’t resist underlining his points.
On the beach, Prisca and Guy’s family settle down to relax with seven other guests: amongst them, arrogant doctor Charles (Rufus Sewell) and his bimbo wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), and rapper ‘Mid-Sized Sedan’ (Aaron Pierre), who gets the story moving when his girlfriend’s body is discovered floating in the water. Other disquieting phenomena follow, including sudden deaths and physical transformations, leading the group to realise that time’s moving much faster on the beach than elsewhere, causing them to age years within a matter of hours.
The reverse of this conceit was exploited a few years ago by the equally cloddish Time Trap (2017), but the idea itself is a good one, allowing Old to keep moving forward as its characters try to deal with both an existential threat (the inexorable passing of time) and a practical challenge (the need to escape from the beach). It offers countless opportunities for surprises, and a few of these are handled well, while the eventual senescence of two individuals verges on the moving, but most of the narrative is marred by clumsy dialogue, a lack of convincing characterisation, and downright implausibility.
In particular, trying to come up with a rational-sounding explanation for the impossible, as Old does, is a terrible mistake. It all boils down to some hooey reminiscent of The Happening’s mystery plant toxin, but even taken on its own terms the science doesn’t add up. (Why do the passing years cause Chrystal’s calcium deficiency to get severely worse? Never mind realism, consistency with Old’s far-fetched premise demands that either her calcium levels are fine, or everybody starves to death within minutes. Still, perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much from a film where the doctor expresses surprise that a tumour’s attached to tissue
Compelling performances might have risen above these limitations, but Old doesn’t have any, although Bernal is credible and at moments poignant. It helps that he and Krieps have, unlike, most of the cast, characters that are at least halfway filled out by the script. And Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) excels as his daughter.
But Wolff’s doctor is a cartoonish monster, and Ken Leung is horribly wooden as another ill-fated guest. He delivers the key line “something is going on with time on this beach” as if he’s not entirely sure what the words even mean. Most of the performances, indeed, go too far in one direction or another, as characters either handle their extraordinary situation with unbelievable equanimity or become caricatures. The grand guignol fate of Chrystal provides the most risible example.
Elsewhere in the cast, Nolan River (as the youngest version of Prisca and Guy’s son) is memorable, though in an annoyingly precocious way, while bearing a striking resemblance to Shyamalan himself. The director again appears in a small but significant role, too.
Old does give audiences a trademark Shyamalan twist (an explanation behind the explanation) and it’s a clever one, if belaboured and over-extended. One could be generous and see some metaphorical strength in the movie, as it’s possibly a meta-commentary on the way films themselves compress time, or perhaps the beach can be read as life itself—beautiful, incomprehensible, and passing by faster than we’d like. In your heart of hearts, though, you’ll know this is a futile attempt to put a subtle interpretation on a desperately unsubtle, almost gauche movie—one where Shyamalan seems so utterly convinced by the brilliance of the concept that he’s sure we’ll be swept away by it, to the point we don’t care about any clunkiness.
Perhaps a moment in Trevor Gureckis’s tedious, paint-by-numbers “eerie” score sums up Old. When the main characters first arrive at the beach, the ominous percussion is so insistent one has to wonder if it’s self-parody. But then a dreadful certainty surfaces that it’s not, that Shyamalan means for Old to be taken totally seriously, and has yet again given us a stunning exercise in misjudgment that’s more likely to leave audiences laughing than gasping.
USA | 2021 | 108 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: M. Night Shyamalan.
writer: M. Night Shyamalan (based on the graphic novel ‘Sandcastle’ by Pierre-Oscar Lévy & Frederick Peeters).
starring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff & Thomasin McKenzie.