I have a love-hate relationship with M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. His first two widely released films (Wide Awake and The Sixth Sense) could be considered near-perfect movies despite Rosie O’Donnell as a nun in the former and even without the famous twist in the latter. Following the success of The Sixth Sense, the quality of the projects slowly descended from the watchable and good Unbreakable to the terrible Lady in the Water, After Earth and The Visit. Nonetheless, I enter a theater or start a stream every time with an open mind and a simple challenge — surprise me, entertain me or change me. I’m an easy audience. I had great hopes for Old because the premise originated with a graphic novel and perhaps Shyamalan could apply his ample filmmaking skills to adapting it properly. Sadly, the experience merely amplified my feeling of mortality. Old squanders a great concept with annoying details that distract you from the crisis for the characters.
Shyamalan based his latest outing on a graphic novel from Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters that was brought to his attention. Characters age quickly on a beach with strange effects to the human body, and they race to understand what’s going on and escape if possible. Actuary Guy (Gael García Bernal) and his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) arrive at an exclusive resort for a fun family vacation with children Trent and Maddox (played mostly by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie, respectively). When the hotel manager shuttles them off to a private beach for an afternoon picnic, the family discovers that they’re trapped in a location that ages them about a year every half-hour. Other guests include Charles (Rufus Sewell), his trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee) and their daughter Kara (Eliza Scanlen). When a dead body washes up and another character dies, the characters panic as they rapidly age and deal with unforeseen events.
Bernal (so many great movies, including The Motorcycle Diaries) and Krieps (Phantom Thread) anchor the movie with their layered performances. It’s not hard to empathize with them as they face the difficult parts of aging within a few hours. I know actuaries, and they don’t spout statistics constantly. That’s merely a lazy stereotype. Still, Bernal stands in for all of us along with Krieps as the adults in the equation trying to figure out their odd scenario. Sewell commands the screen as he has since his early roles in Hamlet and Dark City. Here, he overdoes it with some cringe-worthy scenes as Charles loses his mind. Similarly, Lee doesn’t offer much believability as a woman terrified of her calcium deficiency. The child actors might provide the best work of the bunch, especially Wolff and McKenzie as they convey the actions and anxiety of young children in their older bodies.
Plenty of story problems detract from the aging issue at the heart of the film. The family discovers supposedly famous rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) — Shyamalan couldn’t have thought up a better name?! — in the cove and ignores him even after they start the aging process. He was there first. Maybe he knows something, right? Attempts to leave don’t pass the smell test, and a satisfying explanation for this confinement could have been as simple as a boulder blocking the only exit. Charles’s story arc left me shaking my head because the beachgoers could have protected themselves from his outbursts much more quickly. Fast healing of cuts and injuries looks great as special effects, but the math doesn’t exactly work out at the rate of a month every couple of minutes. Such occurrences would serve the plot and be more believable if there were more of them and the characters themselves broke down the aging numbers in practical terms. With three white kids and multiple actors, confusion settles in, especially when one of the actresses doesn’t change during one time jump. I’m not sure how that could have been made better in the story, but in this particular case, child actors of different races would have established the identity of the children immediately in any scene.
It must have been exciting for Shyamalan to film in the Dominican Republic in a quite perfect location. Many people would love to get old and die in such a place. The director contrasts the beautiful sights with the horrors of the rapid cradle-to-grave cycle. Some nice touches include a common game that the kids play as a contrast to their predicament and some continuous shots that fill you with dread as things happen just out of sight with the viewpoint swinging around to those revelations. A ground shot through some bones gives me hope that Shyamalan can still marry his creativity with his better storytelling. Shyamalan should stop acting as characters, even minor ones, in his own movies. In The Sixth Sense, he appeared as a doctor to satisfy his parents who wanted him to become one. At this point, we all know what he looks like, so playing small parts distracts and takes you out of the movie for those moments. That said, I laughed out loud at one shot of Shyamalan looking through a camera.
Evidently, Shyamalan set his goal to go beyond the graphic novel and flesh out an explanation for the events. In that regard, he succeeds in delivering a resolution. I could compare Old to a couple of movies from recent years, but that in itself would spoil it for many moviegoers. Of his recent offerings, I would rank Old somewhere between Split, which I enjoyed, and Glass, which also gave me agita. People from the Philly area would find Old much more believable if it took place in a secret cove along the banks of the Schuylkill River. Much like human life itself, Old begins with youthful energy and withers over time to a short-lived rebound in its final moments.