Film Review – Old
A family travels together on a tropical vacation complete with a fancy resort, sandy beaches, and blue waters. On the surface, this would seem like the perfect time to relax, enjoy the sun, and escape one’s troubles for a few days. But in the hands of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, there’s always something sinister lurking beneath the façade. His latest film, Old (2021) has the veil of a paradise getaway, but soon the horrors hiding in the shadows reveal themselves. Whether or not Shyamalan accomplishes his goal of unmasking the evil in this version of Eden will be up to the viewer to decide.
Shyamalan has had an up and down career as a filmmaker. Sometimes he crafts interesting, engaging stories (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Split). Other times his work can be tough to sit through (The Last Airbender, After Earth, Glass). If there is one thing he is very good at, it’s establishing a central mystery. In Old, a family of four – husband Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and their kids Maddox (Alexa Swinto) and Trent (Nolan River) – get caught in a trap they are unable to escape. They travel to a beach not far from their hotel along with other guests (Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee, Mikaya Fisher, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung). Almost immediately, they sense that something is wrong. They are unable to leave the beach, but even more shocking is that they all start aging rapidly. Within the course of a day, Maddox, Trent, and Kara have grown into older teens (Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff, Eliza Scanlen).
How is this possible? Are they trapped in a time loop? Have they been exposed to some sort of radiation? These early sequences are the most unnerving, as Shaymalan ramps up the state of alarm. The cinematography (Mike Gioulakis) lingers on faces as characters come to the realization of what is happening. Guy and Prisca watch as their kids grow right in front of their eyes, as they themselves see wrinkle lines and gray hairs start to appear on each other. Some of the most heartbreaking moments are when the kids yell that they’re scared and the parents unable to give them an answer. There is no cell service to call for help. Some try to leave but an unknown entity stops them, causing them to return before blacking out.
The first half of Old works as a strong allegory for the life cycle of a family. Parents have always described seeing their kids grow up in the blink of an eye. I have a kid myself, and seeing them go from crawling on the floor to walking and then running in a short time is incredible. Young couples deep in love will one day wake up in middle age and then beyond. This is an extreme example of the phrase “Time Flies.” Shyamalan forces these characters to confront the aging process all within a day, juggling the mental and physical strains that come with it. Secrets and hidden agendas are exposed – agitation creeps in as the situation becomes dire. With the vast ocean on one side and a jagged rock face on the other, the group becomes caged inside of nature’s beauty.
This set up would make a great episode of The Twilight Zone. In feature length form, however, Shyamalan is not able to maintain the momentum of the first half. Once the dust settles and the initial surprise wears off, Shyamalan starts reaching for ways to keep things moving. Events unfold in episodic manner, as characters react every time a new piece of information is discovered. For a beach that is wide open, characters disappear and emerge constantly. The camera will focus on one person and then whip across to the other side of the beach to show something no one apparently noticed. Characters turn into villains for no reason, and the violence (while impressively staged) feels counterintuitive to the story. One scene of graphic violence is stomach churning in its detail and sound design but is of little importance because it exists in a vacuum.
The appeal of the first and second acts is based on no one having any idea what’s going on. It’s the third act where everything falls apart. Shyamalan, sadly, has become notorious for injecting third act twists into his films. He does so again here, making the disastrous choice of not only explaining the mystery of the beach, but introducing a completely new theme that runs opposite of everything that led up to it. He takes an ungodly long time to answer every question and tie up every loose end. The more time he takes to clarify things, the worse the effect becomes. The “How?” and “Why?” of the beach are the least interesting things about it. He grounds the tone instead of letting it turn surreal. At a certain point I begged for the movie to end to salvage whatever positive feelings remained. Credits tell us that Shyamalan adapted this story from Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters‘ graphic novel, “Sandcastle.” I haven’t read it, but I sure hope they had a better ending.
Sometimes it feels like M. Night Shyamalan tries to be too clever. He’s become so mired in having to add a plot twist that it operates as a detriment. Why can’t a mystery just remain a mystery? Old is two-thirds of a decent movie. The other one-third is arguably the worst movie of the year.