M. Night Shyamalan isn’t the only filmmaker to have scaled great heights, fallen out of critical favor, and then climbed his way back up again, but he’s one of the very few to continue delivering hits all along the way. His genre debut with The Sixth Sense (1999) resulted in his highest-grossing and most acclaimed film to date (although we all agree his best remains the following year’s Unbreakable), and he’s kept the high-concept thrills coming ever since to the tune of over two billion dollars. Audiences have remained loyal no matter how silly the films get or how low the critical scores fall, but his latest movie, Old, might just test those waters even harder than did 2006’s Lady in the Water — which bombed with critics and audiences alike.
Vacations are meant to slow down someone’s life for a week or so with relaxation and fun replacing the drudgery of their daily grind, but that’s not in the cards for Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps). The couple is on the verge of separating but decided to take one last trip with their kids. The tropical resort has catered to their every need, and the family is even tipped off to a secret beach that’s revealed only to special guests. Soon a handful of such special guests find themselves trapped there, though. And as time ticks by, they realize something horrifying: every thirty minutes that passes sees them age one whole year.
The movie sees the filmmaker in familiar territory as Old puts its protagonists face to face with an unnerving phenomenon and forces them to deal with a cruel new reality. This is an interesting enough mystery on its face. But while each passing minute ages the film’s characters it also threatens to push viewers farther away from giving a damn. None of the characters are likable or as engaging as the setup. Once the premise runs out of steam, viewers are left with very little to cling to. Visuals are a mix of shoddy VFX and detached camera choices. The performances will have you convinced that nearly the entire cast has forgotten how to act. And the ending — the element that Shyamalan has been rightly or wrongly aligned with the most over the years — simply underwhelms.
The script, adapted by Shyamalan from the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, leaves viewers with little room in which to workshop ideas and interpretations because the characters are constantly unloading exposition and clear observation as to what we’re seeing on the screen. The dialogue rarely feels natural. Statements and conversations land with a written stiltedness. And that’s even before adult actors start conversing as if they’re six to twelve years old. None of this is how actual people talk.
One result of that dialogue is the sea of surprisingly bad performances in Old by the movie’s ensemble cast. To the point that it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they joined together to file a class-action lawsuit against Shyamalan for making them look so utterly incompetent. These are strong actors who’ve proven their talent elsewhere including Bernal, Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Eliza Scanlen, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, and two of our favorite breakouts of a few years ago, Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie. For all their prior skill, though, they’re helpless here against Shyamalan’s writing. And unlike master thespian Mark Wahlberg, they’re unable to at least (unintentionally) milk it for laughs.
No story, especially one that leans into genre, needs to tie up every last detail and loose end, but while Old goes too far in trying to do just that with its ending — or endings, as the movie goes on for several minutes after what feels like the natural stop — it falls short with the smaller questions. Would a six-year-old really care about missing prom and graduation? Why don’t they take the knife away from the character slipping into dementia before they stab another person? How is it that neither the doctor nor the nurse knows what to do when someone is having a seizure? And what is with Shyamalan’s disgust and fear over the elderly?
Old does look good at times as Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis offer sumptuous visuals and a couple of disturbing images involving broken bones, but the movie’s visual effects stumble more than once. Carnage is minimal, but when present it bears the distinct sheen of CG that doesn’t quite blend into the surroundings. And green screen usage adds to the occasional ugliness. The camerawork also plays a role here as it tries to capture the horror and uncertainty of it all without showing all that much. Closeups of characters’ faces reacting to things unseen, a frame moving around an object rather than into it, and a general avoidance of some things altogether make for odd choices that rarely feel successful and instead leave viewers detached from the terror.
There is a disturbing premise at play here, one that offers up numerous opportunities for horrors both visceral and mental. But far too few of them are exploited. One character’s vanity gets the best of them as their carefully curated physique fails and falls apart. Yet that body horror never takes grip with anyone else. The children seem oblivious to finding themselves in adult bodies — Tom Hanks milked the shift for more unnerving discoveries in Big (1988) than the characters do here. And the adults become nothing more than a collection of maladies. There’s no effort given to painful realizations of lives wasted or sad acknowledgments that time is precious and over far too soon.
It’s a cliche of sorts to say so, but Old feels like a feature-length movie that would have been far better suited as a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone. The initially intriguing premise is stretched thin in the least interesting of ways. And by the time the ending hits it lacks a punch. The same goes for the ending that follows a couple of minutes later. And again for the one after that. When the end credits finally begin, you too will be wondering if your past (hour and forty-eight minutes) could have been better spent.