A film that had a particularly traumatic effect on me as a kid was Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, starring Robin Williams as a fifth-grader who looks like a 40-year-old man due to a disorder that causes him to rapidly age. During the film’s epilogue, where we witness a now senior citizen-looking Jack accepting his high school graduate diploma in front of his adoring and supportive friends and family, all I could think of was the fact that he’s going to die in a few years anyway, barely having lived a full life. This bleak sentiment from a supposed “family film” sent me into an existential funk for weeks. After a 25-year long struggle to overcome these feelings of despair, I now got to relive the whole experience for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest mind-bender, Old.
Adapted from a 2010 graphic novel called “Sandcastle”, Old’s premise is pure M. Night, giving the rock-star pop auteur of our times a juicy Twilight Zone-esque idea to run amok with. The briskly efficient set-up goes like this – married-couple-on-the-rocks Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), along with their precocious young kids Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River), arrive at the health-focused Anamika Resort, an enigmatic but no doubt beautiful Caribbean vacation destination.
After settling into their new digs, they’re transported to a breathtakingly gorgeous secluded beach for a day of fun in the sun with a handful of other guests, including an obnoxious rich guy (Rufus Sewell) and his much younger trophy wife (Abbey Lee) as well as a vacationing rapper who goes by the great moniker Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). The resort driver (humourously played by Shyamalan himself in his obligatory Hitchcockian cameo) assures that he’ll be back to pick them up by sunset but of course… that never happens.
After the corpse of a young woman washes up on shore, the tourists quickly realize there is no reception to call for help and if they try to walk back to the drop-off spot, a powerful forcefield causes them to black out. And that’s all before they start noticing that everyone is beginning to rapidly age, a change that manifests itself the greatest in the children, who morph from pre-pubescents to teens to fully grown adults in a matter of hours. Naturally, everyone starts freaking out and this sunny beach refuge becomes a hellscape of violence and psychosis.
For a while, this is all suitably gripping stuff. Shyamalan has always excelled at evoking a genuine sense of dread while keeping his tongue firmly planted in his cheek and Old is no different, balancing legitimately bizarre and unnerving moments (Mid-Sized Sedan’s halfway catatonic state and constantly bleeding nose subtly send chills down the spine as it vaguely foreshadows the further horrors to come) with outré stiltedness. As usual, he also has an excellent cast at his disposal, which he directs towards the most mannered performance style seen in an M. Night film since The Happening – still one of the most underrated comedic-horror experiences of our time. It all comes off like a distressing Dadaist outdoor theatre production, aided immensely by some truly outstanding cinematography (courtesy of DP Mike Gioulakis) that sees the camera restlessly roving around and framing the characters in refreshingly off-kilter and innovative ways.
Unfortunately, just as the halfway mark hits and it looks like Shyamalan might have the best film on his hands since The Visit (his last true masterclass in terror), Old begins to settle into a blandly familiar groove, where the only thing we’re left to wait for is the inevitable reveal (not so much a twist since the whole point of the movie is wondering what the hell is going on with this beach). And when it comes, it is both obvious (without spoiling anything, let’s just say the resort staff acts a little too welcoming right from the start) and completely illogical, wrapping things up so hurriedly that we’re just left with an endless amount of confusing questions. In some ways, Shyamalan encounters the same kind of narrative dilemma that Lost reckoned with all those years ago, and he ends his story on a similarly toothless and unsatisfying note.
Shyamalan also flounders when it comes to the emotional arcs of his characters, particularly as the film wears on and gets more overtly sentimental. Despite hitting on an extremely relevant allegory about how we’re all seeing our lives flash by too quickly in our hyper-distracted and productivity-focused modern society, he fails at eliciting that through the people on screen, mainly due to the fact that we know so little about them before the madness begins. When Guy and Prisca, now in their twilight years, reconcile their marital issues, it’s supposed to read as a tenderly cathartic moment; yet it’s hard to feel much when they are mostly just props to be pushed around on this magical beach. Once again, I felt more pangs of sadness watching Robin Williams try to fit into his too-small desk in Jack than in anything here.
But in the end, it’s hard to dump too much on M. Night, if only because his level of ambition is so rare in mainstream studio movies these days. Anyone who’s watched the homemade shorts he concocted as a child (lovingly included as special features on the DVDs of his earlier films) knows that he’s always been completely in love with the medium and its ability to tell meaningful stories from fresh perspectives. It’s nice to see him step away from the boring superhero pandering of his recent Split/Glass phase to give audiences a weirdo vision that’s determined to fire on as many cylinders as humanly possible. Old might not ultimately be a total success, but it’s somewhat of a respite from the dearth of creativity plaguing the studio film landscape these days.
So whatever Shyamalan decides to hit us with next, I’ll be ready and waiting. I just hope he continues to unchain that bonkers spirit without succumbing to any pressures of pesky conventions.
- Rated: PG-13
- Genre: Horror
- Release Date: 7/23/2021
- Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
- Starring: Aaron Pierre, Abbey Lee, Alex Wolff, Alexa Swinton, Embeth Davidtz, Gael García Bernal, Ken Leung, M. Night Shyamalan, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Nolan River, Rufus Sewell, Thomasin Mckenzie, Vicky Krieps
- Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
- Studio: Universal