M. Night Shyamalan is not the only filmmaker who has climbed great heights, fallen out of favor with critics and then climbed back up, but he is one of the very few who consistently delivers hits along the way. His genre debut with The Sixth Sense (1999) resulted in his top grossing and most acclaimed film to date (although we all agree that his best film remains Unbreakable of the following year), and it has the high-concept thrill that since then, retained by over two billion dollars. Audiences have stayed loyal no matter how goofy the films get or how low the critical scores fall, but his newest film, OldShe could test these waters even harder than Lady in the Water from 2006 – which bombarded critics and audiences alike.
Vacation is meant to slow someone’s life down for a week or so, with relaxation and fun to replace the drudgery of everyday life, but that’s not on the cards for Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps). The couple are about to split up but decide to take the children on one last trip. The tropical resort has catered for their needs, and the family is even made aware of a secret beach that is only accessible to special guests. But soon a handful of such special guests will find themselves there again. And as time goes by, they find something terrible: every thirty minutes that go by, they become a full year old.
The film sees the filmmaker in familiar territory as Old confronts his protagonists with a disturbing phenomenon, forcing them to grapple with a cruel new reality. This is an interesting secret on his face. But while every minute is aging the characters in the film, it also threatens to further deter viewers from caring about a shit. None of the characters are personable or as engaging as the setup. As soon as the premise runs out of breath, there is very little left for the audience to hold onto. Visuals are a mix of shoddy VFX and detached camera options. The performances will convince you that almost all of the cast have forgotten how to act. And the end – the element that Shyamalan has rightly or wrongly centered on over the years – is just overwhelming.
Adapted by Shyamalan based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, the screenplay leaves little room for viewers to work on ideas and interpretations, as the characters constantly discharge exposure and clear observation of what is seen on the screen. The dialogue rarely feels natural. Statements and conversations land on a written stilt. Even before adult actors start talking as if they were six to twelve years old. None of that is how real people talk.
One result of this dialogue is the sea’s surprisingly poor performance in Old by the cast of the film. To the point that it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they band together to file a class action lawsuit against Shyamalan for making her seem so completely incompetent. These are strong actors who have shown their talent elsewhere including Bernal, Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Eliza scanlen, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, and two of our favorite breakouts from a few years ago, Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie. For all their previous abilities, however, they are helpless against Shyamalan’s writing. And unlike master thespian Mark Wahlberg, they are unable to at least (unintentionally) milk it for a laugh.
No story, especially one based on genre, has to connect every detail and loose ending, but while Old goes too far to do just that with his ending – or the endings, as the film continues a few minutes after that feels like the natural stop – it falls short on the smaller questions. Would a six year old really care about missing prom and graduation? Why not take the knife away from the demented figure before stabbing someone else? How is it that neither the doctor nor the nurse know what to do when someone has a seizure? And what about Shyamalan’s disgust and fear of the elderly?
Old sometimes looks good as a Shyamalan and a cameraman Mike Gioulakis offer gorgeous graphics and a few disturbing images of broken bones, but the movie’s visual effects trip over more than once. Carnage is minimal, but when it’s there it carries the distinct sheen of CG that doesn’t quite blend in with the surroundings. And green screen usage adds to the occasional ugliness. The camera work also plays a role here, as it tries to capture the horror and uncertainty of the whole thing without showing too much. Close-ups of characters’ faces reacting to invisible things, a frame moving around an object instead of going into it, and the general avoidance of some things all make for weird decisions that rarely feel successful and make the viewer look away instead Uncouple terror.
There is a disturbing premise at play here, one that offers numerous opportunities for visceral and mental horror. But far too few of them are exploited. A character’s vanity takes the best out of them as their carefully curated body fails and falls apart. But this body horror never takes hold of another. The kids don’t seem to find themselves in adult bodies – Tom Hanks milked the shift in Big (1988) for more annoying discoveries than the characters here. And the adults become nothing more than a collection of diseases. There is no exertion for painful realizations of wasted lives or sad admissions that time is precious and is over far too soon.
It’s kind of a cliché to say this, but Old feels like a full-length movie that would have been much better suited as a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone. The initially fascinating premise is stretched in the most uninteresting way. And when the end hits, there is a lack of penetration. The same applies to the ending a few minutes later. And again for the one after. When the credits finally begin, you too will wonder whether your past (hour and 48 minutes) could have been better used.