M. Night Shyamalan has always been an enigmatic figure in the film industry, renowned for treading the line between psychological horror and high concept thriller since his breakout hit The Sixth Sense back in 1999. The filmmaker’s penchant for terror coupled with an affinity for mind-bending twists and turns ensured cinemagoers returned again and again to witness what strange absurdities he had to offer. Now in 2021, Shyamalan returns with his newest ‘trip’, Old, an adaptation of the much-loved graphic novel, Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters.
Old follows the Cappa family as they journey to a tropical resort in search of peace and tranquility away from the burdens of metropolitan life. Advised by the resort’s manager, the Cappa family visit a secluded beach along with three other vacationing groups consisting of: a rapper and his female companion, the family of a respected surgeon and a married couple. However, in typical M. Night fashion, it isn’t long before tragedy strikes and all attempts to leave this paradise result in blackouts. This is as everyone on the beach begins to rapidly age, leading to some creepy health deteriorations.
There is simply no denying that Old starts out captivating. In its opening stretch, Shyamalan builds an intriguingly unsettling atmosphere, and it won’t be long before you find yourself buying into the sheer ridiculousness of its Twilight Zone-like template and execution. Almost entirely set on this secluded beach, Old attempts to focus on the relationships between each vacationing group and their inevitable fear of the unknown which has quickly taken a hold of their futures and shaken them to the very core.
In this early passage, Old reveals the true extent of its premise slowly, an extremely interesting idea that plays on universal fears to which any audience member can relate. However, the ultimate problem with the film is that the concept is far stronger than the fully realised product.
The warning signs start when Old shifts to focusing on the chemistry between the Cappa family and the other vacationers, which regularly comes across as stunted and oddly lethargic. Shyamalan’s script is packed full of cringe-inducing self-referential dialogue that attempts to highlight more often than needed that these holiday goers are aging quickly. Meanwhile, the majority of the cast fails to provide strong enough performances to convince us that this interesting concept is anything more than an interesting concept.
Gael Garcia Bernal (Y tu mama tambien) as father Guy and Alex Wolff (Hereditary) as the teen version of his son Trent are the standouts among the main cast. Yet, even Wolff’s Trent comes across as underdeveloped and somewhat unbelievable due to the poor scriptwriting. I admire Shyamalan’s desire to show that the children characters, even though they now resemble teens and then adults, still think and speak like kids, but it simply does not work. It just results in some awkward and creepy chemistry between characters that feels schlocky, to the point of verging on a spoof.
Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) as Guy’s wife Prisca is surprisingly poor failing to deliver any dialogue interactions convincingly throughout Old’s runtime and Rufus Sewell (Dark City) as the surgeon, Charles, devolves into madness in what can only be perceived as attempted horror for horror’s sake. Instead of just trusting in the existential terror of his premise, Shyamalan opts to use Charles’ mental deterioration to shoehorn horror into an interesting concept that does not need it. The rest of the cast are relegated to afterthoughts and it’s hard to see them as anything other than body counts to pad out the runtime.
The Twilight Zone atmosphere that gripped the opening third is all but gone by the halfway point and is disappointingly replaced by characters making silly decisions in an attempt to escape this purgatory-like scenario they have found themselves in. When escape seems out of reach, irrational thinking becomes the meal of the day and when it matters most, the adult leads do nothing and almost willfully give up, allowing their futures to become the subject of condemnation. As the movie progresses, it begins to feel increasingly disjointed and one imagines Shyamalan needed some additional rewrites of the script to fully flesh its focus out.
Even with these glaring issues, I remained hopeful though the filmmaker would somehow get back on track and provide a satisfying conclusion to right the wrongs that came before. This did not happen. Disappointingly, Old becomes a victim of its own interesting concept and at the point when you think a satisfying resolution is overdue, Shyamalan throws multiple curveballs at his audience, resorting to a final third that suffers from an ending crisis.
Just when you think the movie is working towards a confident resolution, Shyamalan doubles down and pads out the runtime with unnecessary conflicts that upset the rhythm of an already disjointed experience. If the majority of the characters hadn’t given up entirely by this point, these conflicts could have made for interesting sub-plots. Instead, it just comes across as underdeveloped procrastination.
The final third and ultimately, the conclusion are where it hurts most. Shyamalan eventually opts for a reveal that feels more in line with complete deconstruction than confident resolution. Deconstruction may well have been welcomed with an open embrace had it not been for the confusing tone previously asserted by Shyamalan’s decisions behind the camera. With a reveal that brings to mind the similarly styled abysmal 2020 horror film, Death of Me, Old ends with a silly whimper instead of a much-needed bang.
Overall, Shyamalan’s latest begins with undeniable promise. Yet, by its unconvincing conclusion, you can’t help but feel it wastes its potential. Old works best when it’s simply trying to do something different. Unfortunately, that attempt to do something new disappears before the halfway mark and it never recovers. It’s a shame really because we all know Shyamalan is a talent behind the camera with the right script. Sadly, I can’t see Old aging well (pun intended). Chances are you’ll completely forget it exists a few months from now.