There’s a point in M.Night Shyamalan’s Old where it threatens to be a great movie. Here, Gael García Bernal’s Guy, and Vicky Krieps’s Prisca, in their rapidly aged state consumed by blindness and deafness respectively, wondered what they were fighting about. In a conversation that could have stemmed from decades (but in reality, over a few hours on the island), the husband-and-wife couple were on the verge of divorce. And when time is against you, all the bickering, tension and brooding drama seems so small and frivolous.
Old’s ambitious and fascinating concept is the real horror. Not some Halloween bogeyman who refuses to die or a ghostly phantom that haunts you in your sleep. Time is the enemy – based on the 2010 graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy and artist Frederik Peeters. In a strange phenomenon, it’s the type of case file that would have landed on Agent Mulder’s desk in The X-Files (which it did in Season 2’s ‘Død Kalm’). But beneath the surface, Shyamalan’s Hitchcockian exploration does have plenty of engaging sentiment.
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Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all growing older. You spot grey hair. Your bones creak and ache in places that you have no explanation for. Or in the case of one well-timed joke and commentary that Old observes on Blackness, I don’t look a day over 35! It’s our own mortality that’s placed under the microscope, grasping at the acknowledgement that the due process of death is an inevitable kill-switch of the human condition. What lies beyond when it is all over is life’s greatest mystery. It may be existentially heavy-handed for this review, but for context, it’s those fears and anxieties that Shyamalan poignantly taps into. And if there is a resounding message he leaves with his audience, then it is this: life is short.
In taking that profound message on board, somehow, it never quite lives up to that potential. Shyamalan is one of those directors where you can’t fault his ambition for the craft. And yet, Old sits comfortably as a mid-tier effort from the director, showcasing the best and worst of his capabilities.
Even as a staunch defender of his work, this was to be expected. The ‘consistency’ in Shyamalan is the acknowledgement that he is a hit or miss director. It’s like the lottery. For every top-tier film in his repertoire – The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Split, Signs or The Village (which I will defend until my dying day), we get the flipside reminders of The Last Airbender and The Happening. The issue is not the director’s ideas or his lack of imagination. It’s always the execution that determines its enjoyment. In the case of Shyamalan’s latest feature, Old is fun – but unintentionally. It carries the type of madcap, off-kilter energy where he throws his hands up in the air with gleeful acceptance and dials up the film’s extreme for the silliness to eleven.
In something that may put you off luxuriously packaged holidays, Guy and Prisca take their two children Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River), on a family vacation – the last one they will share together before their inevitable separation. Made to feel welcomed and relaxed (often noted as ‘welcome to Paradise’), they’re invited by the resort manager (played by Gustaf Hammarsten) to spend time on a secluded part of the island – a private beach with a natural preserve to share with several other holidaymakers. And just like an episode of Lost (albeit a poor one), they begin noticing very quickly that they’re ageing at a rapid rate.
That sense of purgatory helplessness of trying to outrun the inevitable is when the film operates at its best. It unlocks that Twilight Zone/supernatural horror that’s terrifying yet tragic, especially for the children in this escapade. Adulting comes fast for Trent (Alex Wolff), Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie) and Kara (Eliza Scanlen). It’s a tough role to grapple with – the respective cast having to play grown-ups but still embody the mindset of a child. And to his credit, Shyamalan notes this as an observational commentary on generational divides: their respective parents trying to protect them from the dangers of the world, fuelled by their own fears, prejudices, and their hypocritical double standards that feeds the illusion of normality. On the other side of that spectrum, the children experience that harsh dose of reality at the rapid loss of innocence. The things we measure our life against – first loves, marriage, children, cars, houses, secure jobs, even holidays – are robbed in an instant.
There’s ample scope for the commentary it wants to evoke, even if its exploits are largely stereotypical with its overly abundant characters on-screen. Where else would you find the effects of cosmetic surgery used as a homage to J-horror because of old age? Or a rapper with the worst name ever in Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) whose only perfunctory word to articulate this crazy plotline is summed up as “Damn!”. The problem is, Shyamalan doesn’t dwell on these choices long enough. The severe lack of patience in its rushed execution (hampered by some discombobulating camera work) means there’s never a coherent moment for mourning or grieving when these characters are picked off one by one to the great beyond. Instead, the concept is almost played to parody levels, where it’s not remotely interested in the puzzles it poses – right down to its twisty third act. The mystery and suspense are sacrificed for endless and downright chaotic scene transitions, interjected with terrible bouts of repetitive, awkward, and ham-fisted dialogue (which states the obvious).
A cancerous tumour grows from a golf ball to the size of a cantaloupe within minutes. A doctor (along with his overt racism) amplifies into a hostile and manically violent schizophrenic. A pregnancy can develop and be born within a matter of minutes. They’re a magnification of the fears experienced on the island. As audiences, we should feel that same perilous dread, contemplating both the island’s mystical powers but also our own insertion into the plot if faced with such circumstances. But it’s not willing to have that conversation. Even when the film descends into body horror territory, it never feels earned. These are cheap scares that undercut any serious consequences the island presents, and these reactionary characters are never allowed to delve within their personalities to wrestle with the prisms of their morality.
With every Shyamalan film, there will be the inevitable discourse where the merits and absurdity will be evaluated. But the more this film settles, the more Old should have been a short mini-series. The comparisons to Lost will be inevitable, but it’s caught between a rock and a hard place, where the necessary time needed (pun intended) is sorely missed from this adventure.
It’s the frustration that resonates the most, a tease which you want to love more but tonally never finds the right stride to be completely satisfying. The mechanics are always at odds with each other. Thankfully, it doesn’t reach the lows of The Happening. But given the amount of reflection, it’s certainly not time well spent.
Old is out now in cinemas.