Old marks the 14th feature in M. Night Shyamalan oeuvre as a writer-director. Back in the horror/sci-fi realm that he’s most comfortable in, though not as effective as his masterworks like the 1999 breakthrough classic The Sixth Sense, or the much debated alien invasion sci-fi thriller Signs, Shyamalan proves once again that he is a visionary filmmaker that always brings original material to the multiplexes as they drown with franchises and sequels. Sadly, his material has now become one-note and schematic as they always contain expository dialogue, cameo appearances of himself, inadequate plot logic, forced character arcs, and third-act twists that remain his traits. That being said, Old is perhaps M. Nights best work since Signs. Even though that is certainly faint praise considering every film he has made since has either been a disaster, or just a flat out disappointment.
Each of these commonalities, for better or for worse appear in full force in Old, an undeniably watchable, haunting, and ludicrous high-concept thriller about a beach that allocates anyone who goes within the shores to age exactly two years per hour. It’s like The Bermuda Triangle as a film, bolstered with Shyamalan’s flashy visual approaches with a narrative is very hit-or-miss in which Shyamalan makes no compromises in nuzzling such odd material which is based on Frederick Peeters Swiss graphic novel titled Sandcastle.
The film begins with an upper-middle-class family arriving at a tropical vacation resort in which they are instantly greeted with their own specialized drink. We sense tension between Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife, Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and it’s revealed they are on the trip to have some last moment family healing and family enjoyment with the kids before they announce their separation. You can easily sense from Prisca’s eyes that she begins to hold deep love for her 11-year-old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and her six-year-old son Trent (Nolan River).
The resort manager of the resort informs the family about a secluded beach that isn’t crowded, and they are expedited to the location by Shyamalan in a meta cameo (after all, he’s the director of the film, and he takes them to the beach where the sand serves as a stage.) Along the venture Guy and Prisca along with their children are joined by a doctor named Charles (Rufus Sewell), his younger wife (Abbey Lee), their daughter Kara (Mikaya Fisher), and his mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). A third couple joins them on the trip, Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikkki Amuka-Bird) who suffers from epilepsy that leads to sudden seizures. Once they arrive at the beach, they notice a man shaken to the core as his nose endlessly bleeds, he’s actually a rapper celebrity (Aaron Pierre), in which the corpse of his girlfriend is washed up to the shore.
The build-up to the strange occurrences is where M. Night succeeds the most. The beach feels ominous and evokes a sense of creepiness. The waves get louder and louder, and the beach feels like it has a personality of its own. When the group attempts to leave the beach, they black out and wake up on the shores of the beach again as if there is a time class. Their cell phones lose reception, they sense a bizarre time lapse, and the most noticeable changes is when the kids Alex Wolff, Eliza Scanlen, and Thomasin McKenzie are no longer children but teenagers that eventually transform into young adults with each passing hour. The adults begin to wrinkle and experience their own health issues such as tumors, dementia, hearing loss, and blindness. This leads everyone in a conundrum as they try to think of ways to get off the island before their lifespan equates to a fruit fly.
The material really is fresh, it almost plays out like a remake of an old Rod Serling episode of The Twilight Zone. Shyamalan is quite aware of this as he truly brings passion and spirit to the high concept. While it certainly leaves a lot of muddled plot holes at the end as you can laugh off as nonsensical, it’s quite simple to sit back and just have fun with the surrealism and uniqueness rather than enjoy it as a mystery with interpretations and exposition. Ultimately though, the film feels too restrained and probably would have been more masterfully made had it not been a studio film held hostage with its PG-13 rating. Can you imagine if someone like David Cronenberg, his son Brandon Cronenberg, or Charlie Kaufman would have done with such material? There is so much use of body horror that could have been delivered more effectively, as well as some existentialism, but sadly Shyamalan resorts to exposition with his dialogue and other theories on metaphysics of time that over simplify what’s going on. Although the scenes with Rufus Sewell are effectively eerie.
The film also crashes in the third act as you would expect with M. Night routineness as it transitions away from horror and more into cartoonish social satire that makes The Village (Which has a third act Scooby-Doo twist) appear more unnerving by comparison. The final revelation drains all the ambiguity and complexity that Shyamalan had hinted at, and instead he encloses the material with eye-rolling explanations with expected twists and turns. As expected, Shyamalan is trying to pull the audience in different directions and the result feels perfunctory. While the film has moments of an evocative mediation on the passage of time and the tragedy of aging, the third act steps into maudlin sentimental detours and clumsy writing decisions that delineates away from it’s true potential and ideas that become under-explored.
Almost all of Shyamalan films are a reflection of just how far groups or people will go to protect themselves, their family, and even humanity. In Unbreakable, Mr. Glass went to extreme and unethical decisions to find a living superhero, in The Village a family went to unorthodox steps to protect their children from the corrupt outside world, and Glass examined how the chaos in the world can oddly unite humanity together with destiny and power. Some of these themes are once again found here, but like Glass did, it falls apart in the third act as it feels like it’s just another trick where Shyamalan is just hitting the same marks. The result is a film that is both fun and spellbinding though, and it has a very sold buildup, impressive visual strategies, but sadly the film leaves you deeply disappointed with the outcome. Despite some of these flaws and quibbles, Old is still an entertaining and unforgettable experience that will stay with you, and I’ll take this film over the endless franchise sludge that Hollywood pumps out weekly.