M. Night Shyamalan is a filmmaker that generates a thousand different takes, but almost all are simple disagreements about timing. He’s made several great movies, several terrible movies, and everything in between, and the conversation about him usually boils down to when he lost his mojo. You won’t get arguments about The Sixth Sense (it’s great, I’d say a masterpiece), but people have such varied opinions on his succeeding films that anything from Unbreakable to The Lady in the Water is likely to be cited as when he lost the ability to reach deep in our souls and scare us.
Now the thrill of going to a Shyamalan film isn’t that it’s likely to blow you away but that it’s likely to be anything, his quality range being so wide that it’s impossible to predict what you’re about to sit down to. Sure, it’s probably going to be a thriller and have some twist, but will it be cogent? Will it be thoughtful? Or will it be a train wreck?
I’ll do away with the suspense: Old, written and directed by Shyamalan, is absolutely terrible. It’s a high concept film that commits the mortal (and hilarious) sin of trying to explain something that can’t and doesn’t need to be explained. Basically, it’s about three families who get stuck on a beach where they age rapidly. That will never make sense and all of storytelling history has trained us to go along with these kinds of outrageous scenarios in order to explore some metaphorical meaning, but Shyamalan hasn’t picked up on his own audiences’ flexibility. No, he’s got to address hair and nail growth and construct an elaborate internal consistency that explains everything, except when it’s jettisoned for a “scare” or a “slick line”.
The fact that the movie tries so hard to be smart and is anything but is what generates most of the inadvertent humor, which sets in as the movie’s concept has been established and the heat cranks up on the stranded souls. Everyone unravels in their own completely ludicrous way, ostensibly drawing from the built up pain in the adults and the naivete of the kids, but the characters are too thin to draw such connections. Adrift in the narrative, each actor seems to grasp at different ideas and tones within the story, knocking against each other with surreal dissonance. Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps play it as tragedy while Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Alex Wolff are more attune to the humor (at least the intentional bits). Meanwhile, Rufus Sewell is in an B horror movie and Thomasin McKenzie flails through a performance so bizarre that I want to capture it and keep it on my mantlepiece as a conversation starter.
It takes a special kind of script to lose such skilled actors, and against the incessant, nonsensical turns Old throws around no one stood a chance. Events! come fast and furious, their silly but admittedly well-constructed exclamation points (Shyamalan can direct a shock, no question) fortunately/unfortunately generating guffaws instead of chills. For a movie about people stuck on a beach you’d think there wouldn’t be much for them to get up to, and yet this movie feels like it anything could happen at any moment, which does generate a certain loveable energy.
It’s tempting to give Shyamalan credit for the intriguing concept, at least, especially since he’s come up with so many on his own, but this is adapted from the graphic novel Sandcastle. Presumably the concept is what he lifted and the chaotic hilarity is what he unleashed, especially since the specifics is what’s peppered with so many of his foibles.
I mean, how many times have people noted that he goes right up to the line or crosses it when conflating mental and physical illness with monstrosity? Split and Glass got a lot of critiques along those lines, and while Old isn’t quite a ‘hold my beer’ response, it proves that he’s learned no lessons about how to navigate these topics.
But really this movie is about exactly what it says on its cover: getting old. The passage of time is cruel and leads to all sorts of tragedies, and many storytellers have devised ways to shorten a lifespan in order to highlight what we write off as facts of life. It’s a concept that could’ve led Shyamalan back to his previous glories; his best films, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, all use highly commercial genres to delve into very interior character struggles. Faith, responsibility, and how to communicate our pain is what forms the heart of these movies, with broader cultural topics hanging at the edges for you to grab at if you please.
With many of his bombs, though, the weight shifts and cultural critiques are brought to the fore while character fades into the background. Toni Collette breaking down in a car is replaced by Sarah Paulson’s stone cold psychiatrist, and the world around Shyamalan’s characters are made up of impenetrable, cruel systems instead of other pained people caught up in their own struggles.
Old, of course, doesn’t spend time exploring the things that weigh down each character, despite them being right. there. Instead, in keeping with Shyamalan’s need to explain everything, we get completely ludicrous details about what’s going on at this beach, so much so that metaphor becomes a far off dream and the holes in his proposed reality deflates all meaning. It’s not just that Old is bad. It’s jaw-droppingly inept, which makes for a much better time at the movies than a mild failure.
Release: available in theaters in the US and the UK on July 23rd, 2021
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writers: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, Eliza Scanlen, Aaron Pierre