Old (2021)

JULY 24, 2021


In retrospect, a string of box office duds may have been the best thing to happen to M. Night Shyamalan. After a couple misfires in a row (regardless of how you or I felt about them; in fact I'm quite fond of After Earth), the filmmaker either found himself unable to get big budgets or simply chose not to pursue them anymore. Either way he went off and made The Visit, which was a big hit (and proved, again, that filmmakers who knew how to make real movies were also better equipped to make found footage ones) and started a healthy relationship with Blumhouse and, by extension, Universal Pictures. Both outfits are known for letting filmmakers do what they want as long as the budgets are kept in check, a godsend for someone like Shyamalan who, as Old repeatedly proves, has idiosyncratic tendencies that either balance out or simply exacerbate certain weaknesses in his screenplays.

Luckily for me, I'm usually on board with such quirks, and was not surprised to discover how much I enjoyed the film, same as I have pretty much everything he's made thus far. I didn't see Last Airbender or his first two, pre-Sixth Sense films, but of his filmography otherwise, I'd slot Lady in the Water as the only one I didn't enjoy on some level; even The Happening (a close second last in that ranking) has plenty of ironic entertainment value ("Cough syrup") and a fairly solid first half. Like Stephen King, the filmmaker tends to whiff some of the early promise on a misguided ending, but while I wouldn't consider Old's denouement a home run, it's thankfully free of the collapses that made Glass and The Village harder to watch a second time when their solid setups ended up having lousy outcomes.

(SPOILERS ARE AHEAD THROUGHOUT THE REVIEW! Consider this an all purpose warning!)

It's possible that having pre-existing material to draw from helped him a little this time around; I've long said that he could benefit from a writing partner that could reign in some (emphasis on some) of his harder-to-swallow tendencies and refine his ideas into something a little less clunky. Here he is adapting a French graphic novel called Sandcastle, and while I haven't read it myself, some internet sleuthing has led me to discover that the basic plot is the same but he added his own ideas, including the ending. But even though he's being "unfaithful" to the text, I think that having it to fall back on and give him a loose road map of how to proceed with the story kept things working more or less smoothly.

By now you've all probably heard the elevator pitch: some people find a beach that ages them rapidly (someone does the math in the movie, and I think they come up with every half hour being about one year in real time) and also can't seem to escape. This gives the film a depressing ticking clock; they're not trying to stop a bomb or anything like that, they're simply trying to come up with a plan to escape while also gradually realizing that their time on this earth is being whittled away and thus maybe it's better to just make the most of what time they have left. Shyamalan isn't shy (sorry) about hitting us over the head with the basic idea of not wishing your life away; in the opening scene the mom (Vicky Krieps) scolds one child for wanting the ride to the resort to go faster ("Just appreciate what you see around you right now!") while also daydreaming of when her daughter will be older and have an even more beautiful singing voice than she does now.

I of course am guilty of the latter; I frequently bemoan my son being too young to enjoy this or that movie, needing assistance with things that require me to get off my lazy ass, etc.* But I also get sad when it's clear he's gotten *too old* for certain things; I packed up some of his Mickey Mouse Clubhouse DVDs the other day and nearly started crying, thinking of all the times he would excitedly dance to the theme song (and encourage me to dance along with him), an activity he's long since outgrown and will be one of many I'll wish to enjoy just one more time when I blink a few more times and watch him go off to college. That whole "live in the present" thing is so hard to keep in mind, so a movie (a horror/thriller no less) revolving around that concept of our time always being taken away from us is very appealing to me, the kind of thing that will allow me to forgive some blemishes.

I say this because, you know, it's an M. Night Shyamalan movie. By now you should know that will mean some strange performances from dependable actors (Ken Leung in particular seemed kind of bewildered at times), kooky dialogue, a distracting cameo by the man himself (luckily it comes pretty early - he's the guy who drives them to the beach), and - yes - a twist that you either have to roll with or let it kill the whole experience. Interestingly, this time around the twist itself is perfectly fine, in fact it's one of his better ones in many ways - but he adds another wrinkle to it that I found unnecessary. I'll have to spoil it to make any sense, so once again I'm going to warn you off, but I will confine it to the next paragraph, so just skip that one if you're here for minor spoilers but don't want the reveal given away.

For those still here, I kind of loved the surprise twist that the people who died on Old Island were in fact specifically targeted to go there due to their various illnesses, as there is a team of scientists and doctors using the island's mysterious aging properties to find cures for all of the world's diseases. It's a trial and error process, but it apparently works - we learn at the end that one of the victims' deaths proved to be the final key in creating a cure for epilepsy. Had the movie ended there, with the knowledge that these people weren't dying in vain, it would be fine, but Shyamalan opts to have it both ways, and let two survivors spill the island's secrets to the police, shutting down their operation. Sure, what they're doing has some serious moral issues, but I think the film would have been even more successful if the filmmaker let us debate about that for ourselves on the way out of the theater, instead of using his lead character to remove any such ambiguity when he "heroically" shuts it all down and prevents cancer or (since it was shot only a year ago) covid from being cured.

But again, these kinds of slip ups aren't rare in his filmography, so you should be prepared for something like that anyway. However, you might be more surprised by how gnarly the film gets at times, with the rapid aging element being used for less obvious highlights as our group of twelve characters spend their awful day at the beach. For example, wounds tend to heal quicker than they should, which means a few basic "someone gets cut and the wound instantly turns to a scar" kind of things, but also broken bones healing quickly despite being in the wrong place, or a surgery to remove a tumor being thwarted by the skin closing itself back up as they reach in to extract it. Shyamalan's films always kind of tiptoe around being full blown horror films, and while this is no exception, I feel it's the first one that enters EC Comics territory when it comes to some of its effects.

Ultimately, in its own strange way, it functions just fine as a simple "Don't wish your life away, appreciate your life and that of your loved ones" message movie. There are some genuinely sad moments in the film, stemming from both the adults finding themselves facing their twilight "years" by nightfall, and from the children who had their entire adolescence stolen from them. When two adult actors decide to make a sandcastle, out of context it seems silly, but in the film's reality, it's a pair of 6 and 10 year old children whose minds haven't developed enough to fully process what has happened to them over the past day. Yes, there are some inconsistencies with the aging (there are four versions of the son, one of whom is played by Hereditary's Alex Wolff, but only three versions of his sister), but again, there's a "just go with it" quality to Shyamalan's output that any moviegoer should be accustomed to after a dozen films. If you're the type to laugh off his work, this one certainly won't change your mind, but for those who have stuck around for the long haul, I hope you'll agree that this is one of his better films, and admirably more personal despite the concept.

What say you?

*I SHIT YOU NOT he interrupted me as I was writing this very sentiment to help him put a game in the Xbox. Basically I want him to age to the point of being able to figure that out for himself but NOT get too old to want to play said game(s) with me.


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