First came The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, when M. Night Shyamalan was pop culture’s newfound golden boy. He was the next great wickedly intelligent filmmaker, known for putting diabolically clever twist endings at the end of his films.
Then came Signs and The Village, in which Shyamalan visibly strained under the pressure of those extraordinary expectations. They were followed by Lady in the Water and The Happening, both of which were consumed by the towering inferno of Shyamalan’s own hubris. Then the nadir finally came with The Last Airbender in 2010, a perfect and cataclysmic collision of Shyamalan’s ruinous arrogance and Paramount’s maladroit micromanaging.
Yet Shyamalan didn’t slow down. He came back only three years later with After Earth, and two years after that with The Visit, both of which were more or less immediately forgotten by pop culture at large. Then came the one-two punch of Split and Glass, both of which showed potential even if neither one was the slam-dunk success to get Shyamalan back on top of the world.
For the past five years or so, it feels like Shyamalan has consistently been right at the tenuous cusp of a renaissance without ever quite breaking through. But I don’t think it’s for lack of talent, or even for lack of success. It sure as hell hasn’t been for lack of trying. I honestly think it’s lack of trust. I can’t speak for Shyamalan or his trust in his own abilities, but audiences the world over sat through his movies with the trust that they’d be rewarded with something surprising and mind-blowing if they waited it out until the end.
In short, audiences came to place a tremendous amount of trust in Shyamalan as a filmmaker, and he repeatedly broke that trust numerous times in that fallow period of his career. It doesn’t take a genius to know that regaining any level of trust is a mighty tall order after it’s been so thoroughly broken so many times.
So here we are with Old, in which a motley bunch of hapless tourists are stuck on a tropical beach that somehow ages them a year for every passing half-hour. Gotta say, I like a movie with such a bonkers premise that can be so quickly and easily summed up. Let’s start with our victim pool, shall we?
- Guy and Prisca (respectively played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps) are a couple whose divorce proceedings are complicated by Prisca’s cancer diagnosis.
- Trent and Maddox (played by various actors at numerous ages, but mostly by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie) are the children of Guy and Prisca, brought closer by their parents’ dysfunctional marriage. The idea was to bring the kids on one last magical vacation before breaking the news about the divorce.
- Chrystal (Abbey Lee) is a model with a calcium deficiency, the trophy wife to a prominent heart surgeon named Charles (Rufus Sewell).
- Kara (Mikaya Fisher, aging into Eliza Scanlen) is the young daughter to Chrystal and Charles.
- Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) is Charles’ elderly mother, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say she doesn’t last very long.
- Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is an epileptic with the good fortune to have married a nurse (Jarin, played by Ken Leung).
- A rapper known only and inexplicably as “Mid-Size Sedan” (played by Aaron Pierre) was already here when our latest group arrives.
- Mid-Size Sedan was accompanied by a gorgeous nude blonde woman, because even in a movie with this premise and so many older actors, it’s the hot young sexy blonde who’s the first one dead. (Regrettably, I’m currently unable to confirm the names of the character or the actor.)
In his customary speaking cameo role, Shyamalan himself plays the tour guide who drives the characters out to the malevolent beach. Without getting any deeper into the weeds, the metaphor only gets more blatant from there. Seriously, for such an intelligent filmmaker with a reputation for sneaky twist endings, it’s astounding how Shyamalan has such a clinical lack of subtlety.
As such, Shyamalan’s touch is aggressive to the point of distracting in many ways. This is obvious early and often, as the characters practically break the fourth wall to make sure we know the thematic thesis statement of the movie. Even worse, Trent is apparently supposed to be somewhere on the autism spectrum — as a verbal autistic myself, I was thoroughly nonplussed. Oh, and there’s also the matter of Chrystal the vainglorious and superficial diva alongside Charles the puffed-up blowhard trying to take charge. While there’s admittedly quite a lot to humanize both characters, there are still too many times in which they and other characters veer into two-dimensional archetypes.
Shyamalan’s lack of subtlety is most especially obvious in the use of dramatic camera pans and the pretentiously styled slow-motion blur. (see also: Peter Jackson circa his King Kong remake.) Then again, when pretty much the entire movie is limited to this tiny group of actors on this tiny little beach, I must admit that the ham-fisted flair at least brought some variety to the visuals. The strategic camerawork and editing is also functional in many ways, as it serves to mask certain transitions as the characters age. This is most especially prominent and useful as the younger child characters transition to older actors.
But then of course we have the horror aspect. The premise brings so many possibilities for body horror, as our characters wrinkle and age and even decompose at alarming speeds. Plus, remember that many of our characters already had pre-existing medical conditions (cancer, epilepsy, calcium deficiency, etc.) all of which are overblown to absurdly horrifying levels as their aging overclocks. Even when the characters don’t have pressing medical issues to deal with, they still eventually have to grapple with dementia, hearing loss, partial blindness, and other common problems that set in with advancing age.
This is an especially huge factor for the younger characters, all three of whom go from zero to puberty within roughly an hour. Predictably, the results get ugly in ways I don’t dare speak of here. But far more importantly, the filmmakers go into great detail about how these characters are deprived of their childhood.
These kids will never have a prom. They will never graduate. Just imagine all the memories and rites of passage they’ll never get to have, even if they somehow escape. Moreover, everyone has to deal with the fact that while Trent, Maddox, and Kara are all less than twelve years old, this island forces them to endure a kind of trauma that will never go away. In mind as well as in body, these kids have to grow up very quickly.
We also see this in the interactions between the aging kids and their aging parents. You know that heartbreaking period in which parents get to be so old and infirm that they’re dependent on their grown children to stay by their bedside until death finally comes? The movie goes there. And it’s so much more powerful precisely because it comes so much sooner than it should have.
I just realized when I typed that — anyone in that situation inherently knows that it always feels too soon. By virtue of the premise, it literally is too soon in this particular case. That’s the genius of this particular premise and its execution.
There’s some beautifully elegant stuff in here about the vague concept of “growing up”. It’s always been an open question as to where the line is between childhood and adulthood, and this premise draws attention to the arbitrary nature of that line by removing it entirely. Even better, the premise is ideally suited to make any number of heartfelt and inspired statements about the fleeting nature of time and the imperative to treasure every moment.
Late in the movie — after all the death and murder and ugliness — there’s a point in which a character takes a step back and makes peace with the fact that they’re all dying. And in that moment, all their fears and petty squabbles cease to matter. The character finally remembers that for all the terrifying and inexplicable what-the-fuckery happening, they’re still on a pristine tropical beach. All things considered, at least it’s a beautiful place to be and there are certainly worse places to die.
(Side note: The film was shot somewhere in the Dominican Republic. This marks the first time that Shyamalan has ever shot an entire movie outside his home state of Pennsylvania.)
Alas, the movie was always going to live and die on its conclusion. The big reveal. The twist ending. The answer to what’s really going on, who’s going to escape, and who’s going to survive. And now that I know those answers, I honestly wish I didn’t.
As it is, the film was perfectly set up as an allegory for the human experience. By forcing the characters through a freaking speed run of life itself, the film examined the sum total of human existence and how fleeting time really is. All throughout the entire movie, the characters are constantly asking such questions as “Why are we here?” “How do we break out of this cycle?” and “How does any of this work?” If only none of these answers have been explained in the literal context of the island, those questions could’ve taken on a much grander existential scope. It would’ve perfectly added so many captivating layers to what was already a rich allegory.
But no, somebody just had to try and shoehorn some closure into the film’s closing minutes. It’s clumsy, it’s tin-eared, and it’s got jack-all to do with what made the rest of the film so compelling.
I’m recommending Old for a home video rental. The themes are compelling, the body horror is effective, and the actors all make a meal out of this script. In particular, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, and Eliza Scanlen are all having a blast acting a third their age. Though the film is hardly perfect and Shyamalan has a nasty habit of getting in his own way, there’s a lot to like about this movie and none of it will be any less effective on a smaller screen.
More importantly, you’ll at least have the option of stopping the film at the 90-minute mark and pretending that’s the end of it.