M. Night Shyamalan is a divisive filmmaker to say the least. You either love him, hate him, or like him ironically with his penchant for twists and his movies usually either veering hard into laughably bad or impressively watchable. For his latest film Shyamalan wrote and directed the thriller with horror leanings called “Old” which sees several families trapped on a beach where they seem to age at an exponential rate over the course of a single day. Based on the Swiss graphic novel “Sandcastle” of which I personally have very little experience with aside from a few quick Google searches, Shyamalan’s latest outing is far from the worst film he has ever made. However, it probably won’t make him any new fans and, in many ways, betrays the confidence he earned from viewers after he returned to his former glory with “Split”. “Old” is only the latest example of the filmmaker’s lack of polish and his inability to fully capture the deeper ideas that could have made this and many of his other works so much greater.
“Old” stars an ensemble cast comprised of the likes of Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Eliza Scanlen, Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliott, and Kathleen Chalfant as members of several different families who become trapped on an isolated beach during a vacation and soon discover that somehow time moves so fast on the beach that they will all age and die within 24 hours if they can’t escape. The mystery is twofold: how does the beach work and why did these specific people end up trapped on the beach. In typical Shyamalan fashion is all ties into a big twist at the end and, if I’m being honest, I liked the twist simply because I felt it touched on a pretty challenging idea that at least had me conflicted as to how I felt about it all. I like that, when a horror movie can touch on deeper ideas and elements of society and humanity and make me think. As I’ve said many times, that to me is the scariest part of horror, when a mirror is held up to the world and we are faced with the reality of it all. In a way this whole movie does that, but Shyamalan lacks the subtle touch and nuances to really sell it.
At its core “Old” is an intriguing film with some very good ideas hidden beneath its bland surface. Essentially what Shyamalan does with this movie is take the most basic fears of every human, the fear of dying and our limited time on earth, and condenses it into a single day for his characters. They’re all faced with the demons, illnesses and ticking clock that make up their lives away from the beach and even the children are forced to grow up very quickly, literally, and learn lessons of life on a whim. I truly think there was potential here and the chaos that ensues would have made for an incredibly deep dive into the human psyche and our own tendencies to waste the limited time we have on this planet. However, in the hands of Shyamalan these ideas take a back seat. As usual the director feels devoted to leaning heavily into bland dialogue, camera tricks he thinks are more artistic than they are, and basically valuing style over substance undermining much of the subtext he has going for him. In better hands this could have been one of those incredibly deep arthouse horrors that leave you feeling changed after its revelations, but whether it’s because he’s not talented enough, patient enough or committed enough Shyamalan just can’t pull off the subtlety required to sell these idea properly which is sad because many of the actors do well with what they have but the direction, writing and pacing do none of them any favors.
I’m honestly not saying I hate this movie, it’s just…so Shyamalan. The writing especially is what grated me the most. The dryness and convenience of some of the dialogue, character traits, how these people are introduced, the discoveries they make that are clearly foreshadowing future plot resolutions, it all feels so lazy. For a guy who has made a career from plot twists it just seems odd that Shyamalan would write a film in a way where it feels like we’re being spoon-fed information that practically screams “are you listening because this will be important later” eliminating many good ah-ha moments because you already know something is going to come back around it’s just a matter of when and how. I have to say though, this is not bottom tier Shyamalan but it’s far from anywhere close to top shelf. This isn’t “The Happening” or “The Last Airbender” but it’s also not “The Sixth Sense” or “Split”. It’s safely somewhere in between, an example of the director’s skills behind the camera but also the consequences of what happens when he allows his ego and artistic style to get in the way. It’s sad because there were some things I really liked, such as a heartfelt moment in the third act between Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps which I think effectively drives home a major theme of the film and some truly terrifying moments of tension that did have me on the edge wondering how everyone was going to get around the situation. Overall, I found it a tolerable experience for better or worse but definitely nothing I need to experience again any time soon.
“Old” is certainly a mixed bag at best showing off some of the best and worst Shyamalan has to offer. I liked the ideas it had to share and there was certainly a lot of potential to explore some very deep and personal horrors every human being has to endure when examining the ticking clock of life, but Shyamalan downplays what could have been a thought-provoking arthouse style picture with his usual try-hard approach to filmmaking that results in lackluster returns. I will say I didn’t hate it as much as a lot of people did. I didn’t even find it ironically entertaining, I just found myself invested by acknowledging that it wasn’t good but respecting the things that made it worth my time. It was surprisingly inoffensive and even the twist didn’t feel as forced as many of Shyamalan’s past surprises. At the end of the day “Old” feels like wasted potential all overshadowed by an unfortunate return to form for the divisive director that is M. Night Shyamalan.