Old has a great opening act: a group of vacationers are taken to an exclusive beach. Once there, they age rapidly and cannot find a way to leave. The movie is undone by talky dialog and weak acting by the leads. The middle act gets weighed down by sappy sentimentality when it should have ratcheted the tension and the horror of the situation. The mystery is revealed in the end, and while it is intriguing, is loose in its reasoning and cannot erase what came before. A disappointment after the one-two punch of Split and Glass. Not recommended.
M. Night Shyamalan is a confounding director. After achieving critical acclaim and popular success with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, he directed five films that were critically ridiculed and not successful financially (The Village, The Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth). Shyamalan took his down cycle in stride, and has released three films that were positively reviewed by critics and profitable (The Visit, Split and Glass). Seemingly on a roll, Shyamalan has released Old, a movie that, if anything, has a solid hook. A group of well-off types on vacation at an exclusive resort head to a private beach, only to find that they are aging rapidly. There is no cellular service at the beach, likely due to the high cliffs that surround it. Attempts to go back the way they came are a dead end. (The guests black out and awaken lying on the beach.) Swimming away is a figurative and literal dead-end as well. What can our widely diverse cast of put-upon vacationers do to escape their lethal predicament?
Old begins with a family en route to a vacation resort. Guy and Prisca are mom and dad, and you know something is not right in their marriage when we see that they sit on opposite sides of the tram. Prisca is focused on her tablet, to the exclusion of everyone else, and resists Guy’s attempts to include her in. Trent and Maddox are their children, and they’re precocious like children in Shyamalan’s other movies. Not long after arriving, Guy and Prisca start arguing. If they were trying to hide their imploding marriage to their children, going on vacation was the way to do it. They all share the same suite, after all.
The next morning, the resort manager tells them about an exclusive beach they can go to. Evidently, its invitation only, but not exclusive. Our family is joined by seven others, and all are forced to walk their belongings through a massive cliff to get to the beach. The beach is beautiful, but soon things go awry. The body of a dead skinny-dipper floats bumps into Trent while he’s swimming, and the elderly mother and her dog die soon afterwards. As I mentioned before, attempts to go back the way they came fail, and swimming away results in death as well. Old’s setup is competent and intriguing, but the movie quickly goes off the rails from there.
I had many problems with Old. The dialog is terrible. While on the beach, the characters have a habit of explaining everything shown, saying things like “I passed out” or “Your hands are shaking” or “she just died”. I felt like the actors were performing for a radio audience. Shyamalan’s movies are usually talky affairs, but Old takes achieves a new level of verbosity. In addition to superfluous dialog, the movie is filled with instances of characters chatting away, killing the sense of dread Shyamalan’s trying to build. There’s one instance where a character stabs another character with a rusty knife and explains (to him and the audience): “Rust is like poison to the body”. Yes, that’s why we all get tetanus shots whenever we step on a rusty nail. Perhaps Shyamalan was trying to be faithful to the source graphic novel. The script reads like a comic book from the sixties, where every sentence ends with an exclamation mark.
The acting also leaves much to be desired. Gael García Bernal can’t summon the emotional rawness required for Guy, a man who has marital issues, to put it bluntly. Not only is his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) divorcing him, she’s doing it after being diagnosed with a tumor. That says a lot when your spouse would rather deal with cancer alone than with you by her side. They are an odd couple, he an actuarial accountant, she and archeologist. They each reference their profession once on the beach, confirming the obvious but prefacing it with “I’m an archeologist” and “I’m an actuarial accountant”. (Of all of the professions that would be least helpful during a crisis, actuarial accountant and archeologist must be at the top of the list.)
When Bernal isn’t walking around with a terrified grimace, Krieps projects zero warmth as Prisca. I can’t see how either of these characters could have hooked-up in real life, let alone get married and have a family. They seem so completely diametrically opposed to each other. Yeah, opposites attract, but with these two, oy. As Guy, Bernal at least appears comfortable in the scenes with his children. Krieps projects zero warmth as Prisca for most of the movie, vacillating between irritated and annoyed. At no point did I believe Prisca was a mother of two children.
Several of the characters notice that several of them have illnesses that seemingly have been cured. Rapper “Mid-Sized Sedan” (the funniest name for a rapper I ever heard), usually suffers from a blood clotting disorder, but now instantly heals after being slashed by a knife. Psychologist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) hasn’t had a seizure in spite of not taking her medication. Others are not faring as well, though. Surgeon Charles (Rufus Sewell, making the best of another thankless bad-guy turn) has early onset dementia, becoming increasingly fixated on “that movie that starred Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando”. (At first I thought it was One-Eyed Jacks, but I was wrong, it’s The Missouri Breaks.)
The children at the beach are also affected by the rapid aging process, but much more dramatically. Trent, Maddox and Kara (Charles’ daughter) age about five years while they were off-screen for a few minutes. The rest of the actors seemingly haven’t aged a day, which is confusing. When one of the beachcombers asks “why aren’t our hair and nails growing rapidly?”, helpful nurse Jarin postulates, “our hair and nails are already dead when they exit our skin”. True, but the cells under the skin that produce both are alive. (Jarin provides so many explanations in this film, his character should have been named Basil Exposition.)
There’s a particularly confusing sequence where Trent has sex (off screen) with Charles’s daughter Kara (Eliza Scanlen), only for her to be showing her pregnancy immediately afterwards. She then goes into labor, has her baby and the baby suddenly dies after being left on the beach blanket for a minute. Someone (probably Jarin?) helpfully explains, “the baby died from lack of attention”. Well, I guess all of those baby shower gifts can be sent back. So long, diaper genie!
Eventually, the cast (except for Guy and Prisca’s party of four) either die off or are killed by dementia-ridden Charles. Guy forgives Prisca of her indiscretions, and she realizes that she should have rode things out with Guy, who is a nice guy after all. Old may have started off as a horror movie, but Shyamalan turns it into a vehicle for shallow philosophizing about life. Guy and Prisca reconcile with dialog of the “time heals all wounds” and “forgive and forget” variety. It’s gloppy, melancholy stuff, and these characters never earned the right to go to sappy-town. Shyamalan handled the sad reveals so deftly with The Six Sense, but with Old it shockingly feels ham-handed.
Mom and dad die, turn to dust and blow away, leaving Trent and Maddox on the beach as fifty year-old children. A chance comment from Maddox about a message Trent forgot to decode takes the movie in a completely different direction, and I’ll discuss that in the SPOILERS section below. Shyamalan is known for his twist endings, and while I wouldn’t describe what happens in Old in that way, the mystery of why the characters were sent to the beach and aged quickly is revealed. Old ties things up logically, as all of Shyamalan’s movies do, but the movie now has three sides to it: horror movie, rumination on life, and then mysterious scientific goings-on. As a horror movie, Old has some effective scares, and Shyamalan directs the proceedings as well as he typically does. The middle section is the low point of the movie, and should have been much shorter. The final reveal, while interesting and unexpected, ultimately didn’t redeem what had gone before it. There was just too much bad dialog and bad acting to get to the “men behind the curtain” element to the story. If that turn of events had been introduced midway, it might have worked. Ultimately, there wasn’t enough horror, too much treacle, and a rushed scientific rationalization in the end for me to recommend this movie.
If you’re still reading, you know how Old ends. Trent decodes that last message from cute little tyke Idlib (Kailen Jude), and he and Maddox realize that they must swim through the dead coral reef in order to not be knocked unconscious by the “magnetic force” that prevents them from leaving the beach. Don’t ask me how dead coral protects you from “magnetic forces”, but whatever. Write it off as typical horror movie hand-waving and move on.
When the siblings reach the resort, Trent, who remembers everyone’s name and occupation, seeks out the police officer he met the previous day and gives them the journal of someone who was researching the mysterious disappearances related to the resort. Based on the number of entries in the journal, it must be hundreds. How could hundreds of people simply vanish, and nobody ever investigated the resort? Surely people tell each other when they are going on an island getaway. Heck, they brag about non-stop on social media. Old tries to explain this away earlier with the characters saying they were picked up at the airport in private vehicles. Still, everyone knew what island they were going to. Their names would be on a flight manifest. Their phones worked on the island, so their movements on the island could be tracked by cell phone towers. Regardless, the idea that hundreds of people vanished when travelling to the same island, and nobody ever looked into it, is ridiculous.
Then there’s the human experiments angle. Turns out that a secret lab has been giving the resort guests experimental drugs (in the form of exotic cocktails) and driving to the beach to die quickly. Instead of the scientists needing to wait decades to see if the cure works or not, the scientists can find that out in twenty-four hours. What an awesome time-saver! But these aren’t evil scientists–they are altruistic to the core. One of the scientists becomes emotional when telling the collective that the drug they gave Patricia cured her seizures for the equivalent of sixteen years. He says that they are going to go to market with their drug, and it will help prevent suffering for countless others. Everyone claps. Then the cops bust in. Is Shyamalan sympathetic to the cause of the doctors? Is he saying that sacrificing a few innocent lives is perfectly fine for the greater good? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one? In my opinion, of all of the themes Shyamalan includes in Old, that is the one that deserved the most attention.
Finally, I have to bring up the topic of sex. I’ve seen most of Shyamalan’s films, and for years he’s avoided any on-screen depiction of sex or intimacy. Recently, with Glass and Split, he finally confronted human sexual urges, only to depict them as monstrous and evil. The Hoard (or is it The Beast?) has a thing for young, pretty girls, but he just wants to terrorize them and eat them. Shyalaman definitely likes girls in cheerleader outfits, though. With Old, Shyamalan finally offers up some skin. A beautiful blond strips on the beach, and we get an actual flash of bum on screen. Unfortunately, she promptly swims off and dies. Trent and Kaya’s beachside dalliance is entirely off-screen, and the fruit of their union quickly dies. Maybe, one day, Shyamalan will become comfortable with exploring this aspect of human existence.