M. Night Shyamalan’s Old turns an idyllic family vacation into a living nightmare when a group of strangers find themselves stranded on a mysterious beach that causes them to age rapidly. I’m sure you’ve seen the promos. A new M. Night Shyamalan movie is a beacon for films fans everywhere, eager to see what the filmmaker has hidden up his sleeve this go-round.
When Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) arrive at their vacation resort with the two children in toe (played by several actors throughout the film, but most notably by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie) it feels like the perfect getaway. Attempting to give their young children one last family memory before announcing their divorce, they take the hotel manager’s suggestion and venture out to a serene, secluded beach for a fun-filled day enjoying each other’s company. Joining them are another family from the hotel, a childless couple, and a quiet guest who introduces himself as famed (fictional) rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). The good times are quickly cut short, however, after the body of a young woman washes ashore.
In short order, our characters suffer personal loss, profound injury, and bewilderment as they realize that the children have inexplicably grown into young adults. What’s more, they are incapable of leaving the beach. Every time someone attempts to walk back to the main road they suffer intense pain and blackout. Are they all suffering from some sort of mass hysteria? Have they been poisoned or infected by some unknown virus that accelerates growth? With no hope of contacting the hotel staff, and no ability to bail on the beach, our characters have no one to look to for answers but themselves.
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In horror films especially, there is (usually) something to explain the rules and origins of the character’s antagonist. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a supernatural entity killing whole families (Sinister‘s Bughuul), or a group of powerful satanists trying to summon the devil (The Castevets in Rosemary’s Baby) or a masked killer, chopping up campers at the behest of a witch (Fear Street Part 2: 1978). There is always a moment in the 2nd act of a horror movie where the characters in jeopardy learn more about their monster by contacting a traumatized survivor, interviewing an expert, or combing through microfiche. Nightmare on Film Street’s Kimberley Elizabeth has coined this the “Second Act Library” and without it, your characters are left to blindly formulate their own theories about what is happening to them and how they can defeat their big bad.
Because the group is unable to leave the beach (and there are no local libraries to consult), the group has no other option but to speculate about wtf is happening to them. Where Old makes it’s fatal misstep is in treating those speculations and assumptions as actual fact. To be fair, the conclusions the group draws are as improbable as a beach that makes you grow old very, very fast but everyone’s guesswork is treated as gospel to maintain the momentum of the story. And as outlandish as some of their theories are, they’re all later confirmed! As it turns out, these average citizens are highly skilled amateur sleuths, able to easily deduce the inner workings of a supernatural phenomenon. Early on, a character suggests that they may all be suffering from a group hallucination, unable to leave the beach only because they believed they are trapped. That’s “proven” to be false but the nature of the problem-solving in the movie is not unlike a group of highly susceptible people yes-and-ing themselves into answers.
The characters really call the shots in this story, the script just happens to be along for the ride. Nothing moves forward without an out-of-thin-air discovery or half-baked explanation. The story finds itself in uncharted territory very early and it never manages to steer itself back out into calm waters. I’m unfamiliar with Pierre-Oscar Levy & Frederick Peeter’s graphic novel Sandcastle, the source material for the film, but I find it incredibly surprising that Shyamalan (a seasoned filmmaker) didn’t recognize the weakness in the investigative cycle of the story we see on screen. There are, however, some strong moments between Prisca and Guy as time washes away their troubles and they reconnect. Sprinkled in there as well are real-life horrors allowed to grow and multiply like an out-of-control cancer cell, and some playful camerawork unlike anything else Shyamalan has done. The result, unfortunately, is a film about the cruelty of biological clocks that is not very economical with its own runtime.
Death is the ultimate monster because none of us are free from it. Aging is simply the slow-moving monster that reminds us we are all slowly marching toward the inevitable. Life is the most universal horror because we will all watch it slowly fade away in ourselves and the ones we love. Putting that all on fast forward is an interesting idea and it makes for an intriguing premise, but it’s what you do with a premise that makes or breaks a good story. Old is a muddled thought experiment that attempts to put the human condition under a microscope. It strives to be philosophical and introspective but, instead, allows misguided characters to filibuster toward a finale that, sadly, does not satisfy.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, a Universal Pictures production, is playing in theatres now! Be sure to let us know what you thought of this time terror over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.