I don’t know why I keep thinking M. Night Shyamalan is going to get it right one of these days. He’s a filmmaker who has been trying to live up to his first feature for the past twenty years and he has arguably never made a film on that same level. However, I was rooting for his newest feature Old, after a very promising Super Bowl TV spot earlier this year. I was really hoping this would be the one for him – it has an interesting cast, a terrific concept and a solid middle-of-summer release date. Unfortunately, Old manages to find very few ways into its fascinating concept that could be emotionally devastating for me – the fact that we will all eventually die.
Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are a married couple taking their two children, Trent and Maddox on one last family vacation before they announce their divorce. Prisca also recently had a potentially life-threatening health scare. Once they arrive at a luxury resort, they’re told about a secluded beach only certain guests are invited to. They jump at the chance, and so do a few other couples, and once they arrive they discover something strange is beginning to happen. Something on this beach is causing everyone to age rapidly – every half hour on this beach equals to a year of your life, reducing their lives to a single day. And there’s no way off the beach.
Shyamalan is adapting a French-Swiss graphic novel that’s apparently much more bleak and much less convoluted. Old isn’t short on interesting ideas, but explores every single one in the least interesting way possible, and it’s almost completely due to Shyamalan’s script. There’s a painfully stilted, awkward, uncomfortable quality to the dialogue from the very beginning, and it doesn’t let up for the entire movie. In the beginning, the kids play a game where they walk up to strangers and ask “what’s your name and what do you do for a living?” It’s just the clunkiest exposition possible, and this movie is full of clunky exposition – people constantly listing their credentials and why their skills are important in the moment, and it all feels like hand-holding for stupid audience members.
I don’t think Old’s problems are due to the cast, but also no one quite comes out of this unscathed. Bernal and Krieps have no chemistry and two of Hollywood’s most exciting young actors working today, Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie feel totally wasted as their children. Rufus Sewell plays a doctor battling schizophrenia, and he seems to understand the absurdist nature of the movie he’s in more than everyone else. Abbey Lee plays his image-obsessed social media influencer wife who has a calcium deficiency. Aaron Pierre plays the first man on the beach, a rapper with hemophilia. Just something you should know – every time you’re told a character has some kind of medical issue, it comes up later in the most ridiculous way imaginable. Chekhov’s calcium deficiency.
Is the problem Shyamalan’s script or is it his direction, or is it the cast? I think this is Shyamalan’s fault, full stop. The camerawork, even, is a totally mixed bag. We have a lot of moments that do kind of work, where the camera is very pointedly not showing us something and it adds to the tension, but also a ton of really extreme close-ups on actors’ faces that seem pointless. Shyamalan even gives himself an extended cameo in the movie and he has absolutely no screen presence. If an exciting horror filmmaker like Ari Aster or Jordan Peele decided to adapt this material instead of horror has-been Shyamalan, we could be dealing with something very exciting here.
Instead, Old is a collection of weirdly uninvolving moments populated by characters that don’t feel like people at all and throws its terrific cast to the wolves, dialogue that feels unnervingly unrealistic, so much so that even moments that are supposed to pack a big emotional punch never hit like they’re supposed to. A few moments of body horror are quite effective, but they’re few and far between. I was rooting for this movie, too. For the record it’s very rare I approach a movie intending to trash it, and don’t come at me with your ‘you didn’t even want to like it!’ critiques. I promise you, I did. The concept of going on vacation and your entire life being dwindled down to a single day is a genuinely horrifying concept to me, and unfortunately the execution is so bad from the very beginning, Old fails to make the impact it so desperately needs to. And don’t even get me started on that ending.