Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has left his unmistakable stamp on some of our culture’s most primal fears: ghosts, beings from another world, and even unnamed monsters in the woods. Yet in his latest effort, the cryptically titled Old, the storyteller attempts to wrap his arms around the greatest terror of all: time itself.
Like the ticking clock inside Peter Pan’s crocodile, time has stalked every creature on this planet to their inevitable doom. It can often be ignored or compartmentalized, but it finds you in the end. Which is why, on paper, Old should be terrifying. By adapting a graphic novel called Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, Shyamalan is attempting to prevent us from looking away. This is a film where once you step foot on a mythical beach, you will live a lifetime in a day. Who has time to distract themselves from the ravages of decay when it’ll be here by dinner?
And yet, that is not the movie Shyamalan made. Despite being a film supposedly preoccupied with the future that awaits us all, Old feels like a relic of its director’s past. For here is another half-baked and clumsily constructed series of clichés strung together by sequences which vary wildly from quality to kitsch, and from horrifying to hilarious. His characters might be rapidly aging, but the filmmaker’s undeniable talent feels as if it’s regressed back to its awkward and gangly The Happening days.
Also like that Mark Wahlberg misfire, Old is a story that mistakenly believes it’s obligated to overthink and explain its fairy tale logic. Which is a shame since the actual setup of the film is simple enough: Four sets of couples, two of them with children, are offered a once in a lifetime opportunity by their isolated island resort. They will be driven to the far side of the island where there’s a secluded beach surrounded by a cove with special minerals. Alone on white sandy shores and in the bluest waters, they can get to know each other and sample the good life.
There are more characters than are worth listing, but suffice to say the important ones are Guy, an actuary accountant played by Gael García Bernal, and his museum curator wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps). Despite being of separate international origins, they’ve raised the all-American nuclear family with daughter Maddox and son Trent (Alexa Swinton and Nolan River… at first), and are determined to give their children a happy childhood, even as their marriage appears to have long rested at the water’s edge. However, once they reach this magical beach populated by many other underdeveloped characters, it becomes an open question how happy a life can be had when their children rapidly age into teenagers and then young adults in the span of a morning… and that rich doctor down the way (Rufus Sewell) begins showing signs of late stage Alzheimer’s after only a few more hours.
Old is a genuinely creepy premise, which in the right hands could unnerve as the ultimate body horror. What instills more existential dread than seeing your youth turn to wrinkles, and golden halcyon days go gray inside of 90 minutes? But inexplicably that is not the movie Shyamalan chose to make. To be sure, there is some basic use of humans’ natural transmutations, but it’s mostly through the perspective of parents watching their children age like bananas. And credit should be given to the hair and makeup folks, as well as the younger actors, who convincingly pull off the continuity of Maddox and Trent’s accelerated lifespans.
But for each effective moment, such as when teenaged Maddox and Trent approach their parents confused and horrified at why their voices are different, there are five more of Guy, Prisca, and an ensemble of wildly inconsistent adult performances standing around trying to justify their film’s lunacy with laughable pseudo-science. Rather than delve into the ripe existential phobias that are growing around its cast like coconuts, Old is content with mostly coasting on being a Fantasy Island episode that adapts And Then There Were None—complete with a surprise killer running around. The movie thus plays less like an artist grappling with mortality than it does one slumming in B-movie trashiness.
And if The Happening should’ve taught Shyamalan and his audience anything, it’s that intentional trash has never been his forte. As with the revelation of why folks were killing themselves in The Happening, Old spends far too much time setting up a rationalization and an inevitable third act twist, which plays a bit like if at the end of The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock revealed the title creatures had been trained by a mad scientist down the shoreline. It’s unnecessary and, like so much else of the film, focused on the wrong questions. But then even the ideas that Old does concern itself with are haphazardly explored and articulated.
After proving he still has a gift for quirky and clever dialogue with films like Split, the perfunctory and ham-fisted nature of nearly every adult character interaction is baffling here. From on-the-nose lectures wherein parents tell their children in the first scene they’re too young for this and not old enough for that, to the robotic way in which Guy and Prisca unconvincingly talk about their marriage, the banality of the screenplay is as ceaseless as the sea. Framing and blocking for the camera is similarly roughshod throughout the movie. Sequences meant to evoke genuine horror—including a surprise pregnancy teased in the trailer—become outright giggle-inducing in their final execution. It’s in fact hard to think of any theatrical screening this summer with more laughs drifting through an auditorium.
By the time of its hokey and melodramatic finale, Old has collapsed on every level as a horror movie, but may have cemented its status as a cult midnight movie classic.
I take no joy in writing this. As someone who’s seen virtues in most Shyamalan movies, even damnable ones, it was a real pleasure to witness the “Shyamalanaissance” emerge in the wake of The Visit and Split. I even enjoy the autobiographical subtext the filmmaker inserted into Glass. But if those movies were a validation of his cinematic powers, then Old is the puddle waiting for him in the parking lot.
Old opens in theaters on Friday, July 23.