2021, PG-13, 108 min. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Alexa Swinton, Nolan River, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Aaron Pierre.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 30, 2021
Old is a very special kind of film. It's the sort of movie that can only be made by an extremely talented, creative filmmaker who somehow has no idea how to make a film. It craves enigma but then spells everything out. It is late-era M. Night Shyamalan at his most late-era Shyamalan.
He is undoubtedly a director of Big Ideas™ and Old definitely has one of those. A wealthy if troubled family – father Guy (Bernal), mother Prisca (Krieps), daughter Maddox (Swinton), and son Trent (River) – ends up on a mysterious beach where the body’s cells age at an accelerated rate, and the hands on the clock spin so fast that everyone is going to die of old age within hours.
If Shyamalan's early films channeled the resilient compassion of The Twilight Zone, Old aligns closer to the supernatural amorality of Rod Serling's other great creation, Night Gallery. However, you can obfuscate and distract the audience for 22 minutes without providing the kind of coherence a 109 minute movie demands, and Old is quickly revealed as a conch shell of a story: elaborate, clearly the end result of much effort, but with nothing living within it.
As MacGuffins go, this adaptation of Sandcastle, the graphic novel by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, comes with a doozy. Yet while Old may set up a fascinating premise, it is a perfect example of the gaping void between having a good idea and knowing what to do with it. Through the clumsiest of mechanisms, every character is introduced by name and career because it is very important that we know who is a surgeon, or a therapist, or an insurance actuary (write me up as "critic laughing out loud at some cringe-inducingly bad sequences"). Why? Because otherwise the hammy expositional dialogue they are forced to recite would choke them. Shyamalan must be a talented director, because how else could he get an entire cast of well-rounded character actors to deliver lines in the same overenunciated and clipped manner? (Only Pierre as rapper Mid-Sized Sedan delivers his part like an actual human.) How else could he so perfectly format shots that are so laughably heavy-handed, or where the camera just seems to forget about the scene and drift off? How did no one fall straight down one of the multitude of plot holes dug by the inconsistencies in how the beach functions?
It's almost like the director has been on a vendetta since The Happening, a clunky if fascinating and possibly inadvertent homage to 1950s proto-environmental Z-movies like The Monolith Monsters. It's like calling it the worst film of his career only challenged him to make worse. Old has the odd mean-spiritedness that has plagued his recent films, and while there's nothing as needlessly grim as The Visit's adult diaper gag, there are still some sequences that feel like they're included on a dare rather than to add anything to the film. There's a sub-Blue Lagoon pregnancy scene that's best just not worth thinking about, and a heavy dose of his lasciviously voyeuristic eye whenever any of the younger women of the cast are in a bikini (as soon as the actress hits 35, it's all flowing beach robes). As for his treatment of mental illness (in this case, Sewell as a surgeon with early onset dementia), it’s as distasteful here as when he got cheap laughs out of senility in The Visit, or personality disorders in Split. To be fair, at least Old captures the sense of time passing past too fast: Rarely have I felt more like my life was slipping away in the cinema.