Synopsis: A family on a tropical holiday discovers that the secluded beach where they are staying is somehow causing them to age rapidly, reducing their entire lives into a single day.
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Kathleen Chalfant, Alexa Swinton, Nolan River, Kylie Begley, Embeth Davidtz, Eliza Scanlen, Alex Wolff, Emun Elliott, Thomasin McKenzie
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Looking back over the director credits for M. Night Shyamalan, I’m wondering if we weren’t the ones that ultimately set him on his shaky trajectory in the late 2000’s after the cool reception that greeted 2004’s The Village. Yes, I know viewers still bristle at the mere mention of Shyamalan’s sixth feature film and first to break his major winning streak of uniformly positive reception from critics and audiences alike. The “big twist” everyone had come to expect felt like something overly orchestrated by a director wanting to be appreciated for rug pulling than for what came before and after and ticket-buyers weren’t having it.
This led to a downward spiral for the Oscar-nominee who broke so big with The Sixth Sense in 1999 and his two follow-ups after The Village, The Lady in the Water in 2006 and The Happening in 2008, were dull flop-a-roos. Several more disasters would be released and a so-so TV series on FOX would come before Shyamalan would bounce back quite nicely with 2015’s The Visit with Split coming out just a year later in 2016. Nicely tying into 2000’s Unbreakable, he used Split’s success to complete a trilogy with Glass in 2019 and parlayed that film’s moderate success into a new deal with Universal for two additional films he would direct. (This is above and beyond Servant, the creepy under the radar half-hour series that’s been renewed for a third season on AppleTV+).
The first film to meet that new deal is Old and, surprisingly, it’s not based on one of Shyamalan’s original ideas. Instead, it’s inspired by Sandcastle, a graphic novel by Swiss artists Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. Given to him as a gift by his daughters, Shyamalan responded to the illustrated tome’s themes Levy and Peeters dabble into when they weren’t revealing how a secluded beach in paradise becomes a nightmare for a group of vacationing tourists. Reviewing what types of family-based stories Shyamalan has been compelled to tell in the past, it’s not hard to see why he felt a kinship with the creators of Sandcastle or why he thought he’d like to bring those ideas to life on screen. For a while, Old even feels like something new. Then…some tired tricks resurface.
Arriving with their two children at a luxe resort in an unnamed tropical utopia (the movie was filmed in the Dominican Republic), Prisca (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) and Guy (Gael García Bernal, Coco) are hoping for one last relaxing vacation before reality sets in. Already planning to separate before the trip was set into motion, life-changing medical news has arrived for one of them which suggests this might be the final time the four of them can spend together as a family. At least they are truly being waited on hand and foot, thanks to Prisca stumbling on the hotel on the internet and getting a great deal for the week. The kindly hotel manager suggests a day trip to a private beach that is sure to impress and the foursome, wanting to kick back, swim, and sun, only need to be pointed in the right direction.
Dropped off at the beach by their driver (Shyamalan, popping up in his usual cameo) along with a doctor (Rufus Sewell, Judy), his trophy wife (Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon), their 6-year-old daughter, and his mother, they make the short walk to the beach through a towering rock wall, and it is indeed the private haven the manager promised it would be. There is already someone there though, a famous artist (Aaron Pierre) Prisca’s daughter instantly recognizes and who soon becomes the first clue that something isn’t quite right at the beach. Before we know more, a third couple (Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung) shows up and our beach party seems to be complete. Then…the first dead body is found.
In the interest of your own enjoyment of Old, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination and say that up until that point, Shyamalan had done a solid job of carefully gathering a bunch of strings together he could ably pull taught. Though featuring a lot of stock characters (the doctor is a controlling bore, the trophy wife is a looks obsessed snob), he’s cast the film with enough interesting actors that you are curious to see where their beach journey to The Twilight Zone will lead them. Even the first few developments where they figure out something supernatural (or otherwise) is taking control over them and preventing them from leaving, Shyamalan maintains a great deal of tension while we fret right alongside the characters in true peril.
It’s only when we start to get long gaps in between events do you see how flimsy the structure of the piece actually is, how repetitive the attempts to leave are, and how helpless the characters act when they could be taking fuller charge of the situation. The worst thing about it is that up until this point, many of these people were portrayed as independently minded, intelligent beings but somehow once they get a little sand in their swimsuit, they don’t put up much of a defense when challenged. That’s why nearly the entire midsection of the film is simply a series of false starts and fake outs, never gaining any momentum until the end when secrets are revealed, giving the story more of its purpose and creating a renewed interest in what’s been happening.
To his credit, I think Shyamalan is going for exactly the movie Old is. He wanted these pauses when families could talk about growing older and reflecting on watching parents age as their children experience life that has begun to move at a rapid pace all around us. It’s an odd construct for a horror film of this nature and doesn’t always feel in harmony with everything else going on but…I do see where he’s coming from. Perhaps part of the problem I had with it all is that I never believed Krieps and Bernal had breathed the same air for more than two hours before we first see them, much less been married for over a decade. There’s just no chemistry there so attempts to create dramatic sequences for the two of them don’t have anywhere to go. The most successful couple in the film is probably Amuka-Bird (The Personal History of David Copperfield) and Leung (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) who manage to create some kind of connection in the little amount of downtime they are afforded. I also have to say that while Lee has to play some silly scenes in the first half of the film, Shyamalan certainly gives her a few memorable bits in the latter sections.
I wouldn’t recommend you keep your distance from Old because as jumbled up as the middle section gets, the bookends do manage to redeem it on pure curiosity alone. You can’t help but be drawn into the world Shyamalan has created and that’s a gift he’s always maintained. He’s the type of writer/director that easily ensnares you into the theater with an intriguing story, only to leave you slightly disappointed the tale isn’t quite as he originally described it. He thinks it’s better than what he promised. You wish it were better than what you got. That’s nothing new.