OLD— 2 STARS
There was a phrase I used in my review of Glass two-and-a-half years ago about the vibe of M. Night Shyamlan’s movies that is necessary for me to painfully regurgitate for his hotly-anticipated new film Old. I said there was a “portending promise for something greater.” Even while adapting someone else’s work instead of shoveling his own dreck, Shyamalan has not improved. He takes another electric cocktail napkin concept and hammers it into the ground, well, sand this time instead of rain-filled potholes with forced overcomplication. Once again, his overused crutch of manufacturing twists cannot cover for him anymore.
The premise of Old is a hell of a Twilight Zone-level hook, based on the 2010 Sandcastle graphic novel by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters. “Welcome to our version of paradise” is the subversive welcoming line of hotel manager played by Gustaf Hammarsten of Bruno. The keywords for later are “our version.” Hold onto those.
Twelve people on a Caribbean island vacation have taken an excursion to what was promised to be a secret beach beyond the nature preserve cliffs off the beaten tourist path. Filmed at the lush Playa El Valle in Samana of the Dominican Republic through the dextrous 35mm lenses of Us cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, the more time visitors spend in this beautiful place, or are held there as we hypothesize, the older they age in a terrifyingly rapid fashion.
Among the dozen are the Kappa family from Philadelphia composed of Presca’s museum curator (Vicky Krieps) and Guy’s insurance data specialist (Gael Garcia Bernal) and their two children Trent and Maddox. Also on the bus driven by Shyamalan himself are a married nurse and therapist (Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird), a prissy middle-aged doctor (Rufus Sewell), his senior mother (Kathleen Chalfant), his daughter Kara, his trophy wife (supermodel Abbey Lee Kershaw). They meet two people already on the beach, a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) and his skinny-dipping girlfriend.
Brief injuries rapidly heal over. Long-term ailments quicken their effect. Natural causes of aging strike faster and more severely. They see it in the kids first as they go from elementary school age to their teens over the course of an hour, all while some force won’t let them leave. At the rate time is pushing minutes into years, everyone will be dead in a day. Chilling? Sure. Scary? Not really, but it should be. Intriguing? That’s up for debate by the time it’s all said and done.
LESSON #1: WHAT WOULD THEY DO, BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHAT WOULD YOU DO?— Geological theories of unknown minerals are bandied about as every disorganized attempt at escape is tested in silly fashion while everyone hangs around gobsmacked with a picnic basket of provisions as the powerful waves crash to soothe nothing and no one. Blunt signs like ready buzzards above only make it worse. That’s them attempting to have family stick together, but what about you? What would you do in this bottle movie? A movie like Old happily begs that question with equal chin-rubbing and eye-rolling.
LESSON #2: ALWAYS THINKING ABOUT THE FUTURE VERSUS THINKING ABOUT THE PAST— Need something deeper than “what would you do” in Old? OK. Try this lesson. Mindsets can change how this haunting pickle plays out. Who leads by actions? Who compartmentalizes, as one character suggests? That’s all well and good if the characters stir that empathy within the viewer. In Old, they don’t. As soon as the therapist among them exasperates the attempted pause button of “maybe we should all talk about what happened,” the scoffs for the dumbfounded results are confirmed.
Old assembles an eclectic cast of very talented performers who, thanks to Shyamalan’s continued inelegance with writing dialogue (an age-old problem), are given little of consequence to build with. The best they are called to muster, no, scratch that, queued to capture, are agape stares and partial screams of frozen fright. The utter helplessness matching this deadly scenario that should elicit absolute carnal madness could not look more boring and squelched.
That is a shameful waste of talent when you consider the top-lining presence of Vicky Krieps from Phantom Thread and the always-passionate Gael Garcia Bernal. Patriot Day’s Alex Wolff, Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie, and Babyteeth discovery Eliza Scanlen come the closest to reaching a tangible level of frazzle playing the teen/twentysomething ages of the growing children. They legitimately wig out, so to speak, and we buy their underlying childlike fear. They rest, sadly, mope more than unravel. Even the special makeup from Freaky effects designer Tony Gardner and the weak score from Trevor Gureckis of The Goldfinch are unconvincing for a boost of tone and true dread.
Beyond them, the ensemble is arranged as the stock stereotypes they represent. Rufus Sewell is a professional movie villain where his heel turn is immediately predictable from the moment he furrows his brow and opens his mouth. The actresses playing vapid hot girls (Abbey Lee Kershaw and Francesca Eastwood) end up exactly that. Ken Leung has played the quick-witted thinker side character before and does so again. Gosh, if anything, give a pragmatic character like Leung’s the lead. Why not? Because their logic would destroy the inanity of the plot and we can’t have that prevent the coveted body count and celebratory rug-pull.
No one in Old, even within this quickened sense of a narrative, has an arc of any substance fleshed out to explore. Their randomness only serves the movie’s denouement, a filmmaker-created amendment tacked on that will make original Sandcastle graphic novel readers revolt enough to throw eggs and tomatoes at the screen. Of course there’s a twist on the nefariousness of it all, because, as proven for decades now, that’s all Shyamalan’s got. We’ve reached a point where his nonsensical twists are contrivances, not payoffs. The big “why” goes from being about what’s in the movie to why we’re even here in the first place.
This is Shyamalan’s second ever adaptation, following the disastrous The Last Airbender, and he has smeared another one. The predicament of the setting and the possibility of unseen puppeteer strings are given more mysterious investment than the people at the core. That has very limited appeal. At some point, someone, more than something, has to matter.
LESSON #3: LET’S DO WHAT NATURE WANTS US TO DO— That line is the cleansing holy water being solicited by Old. The accelerated mortality of Sandcastles is a tantalizing mindfuck place to muse on life, death, aging, and grief. Old veers from that power thanks to Shymalan’s indulgences. You know what nature wants me to do? Ignore the urges and spend my two-hour segments of life doing better things than chasing this man’s ruses. If you want a better take on the arresting nature of life and death, I’ve got an 8-minute short film from 2016 named Endless Waltz from Hollywood grip Zachary Richadson that runs thematic circles around Old’s hopscotching while dancing its own way in a straight, artful line.