Old (2021)

It’s only a matter of time.

I’m kind of enjoying this third act of once-vaunted genre auteur M. Night Shyamalan’s career.

Having made his bones with The Sixth Sense back in ’99 he had had a run of successful high concept thrillers — Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), The Village (2004) — that were commercially successful even if the critical notes began to dip.

Then came The Lady in the Water (2006), a film I have never managed to sit all the way through. After that? The Happening (2008), probably the worst movie of his career. Then big-budget, phoned-in tosh like The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) — which gives The Happening some real competition for bottom-of-the-league status. Usually, a couple of expensive studio pictures indicate a step up for a filmmaker, but the failure of these two looked like the death knell of ol’ mate Night’s A-list status.

There’s something wrong with this beach.

But then a funny thing happened — he turned around and did The Visit (2015), a little five-million-dollar horror flick for Blumhouse, and it was pretty great. Split (2016) quickly followed, and not only did very well, but it also brought Shyamalan’s best film (don’t argue), Unbreakable, back into the public consciousness. Glass (2019) came, and while it wasn’t on par with its predecessors, it capped off the loose Unbreakable trilogy and, hell, I liked it.

Indeed, I like low-to-mid-budget Shyamalan much better than future-of-cinema big-budget Shyamalan; the constraints seem to suit his storytelling proclivities much better. Old, his latest offering, feels like the one we’re going to pull out down the track to show a “typical” Shyamalan film from this period. It’s not as good as The Visit or Split, but it isn’t weighted with expectation like Glass. It’s a solid little genre exercise.

Our focus is on a troubled family off for one last tropical vacation (remember vacations?) before mom and dad split, although they haven’t told the kids yet. Mom is Prisca (Vicky Krieps), dad is Guy (Gael García Bernal), the kids are 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). Arriving at their resort, they are offered access to a pristine private beach by the accommodating hotel manager (Gustaf Hammarsten, who could be Michael Smiley’s stunt double). Once there, they find a handful of other guests, including Rufus Sewell’s snobby doctor, Charles, and Abbey Lee as his Instagram influencer trophy wife, Chrystal, and, eventually, a disturbing mystery: they are suddenly and rapidly aging.

Where did the time go?

At first, the adults don’t notice — maybe the extra wrinkles are the product of too much sun or too big a night the previous evening, right? But when the kids start transmogrifying into Thomasin McKenzie and Alex Wolff, while Charles and Chrystal’s six-year-old is suddenly Eliza Scanlen, something is clearly up. Unable to leave the beach, our unhappy campers must try and figure out what’s going on right quick because the clock is well and truly ticking.

Adapted from the 2010 graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, Old makes a decent fist of the horrors of aging. The best film on the topic is, of course, Michael Haneke’s 2012 movie Amour, but it’s so good at it that I can’t imagine ever wanting to watch it twice. Shyamalan makes the inevitable palatable by making it fantastical; yes, afternoons and coffee spoons wait for all of us if we don’t fall off the perch sooner, and meditating on the sands as they pass through the hourglass can be a depressing enterprise, but here we get wounds turning into scars the second they’re inflicted! And diseases and infirmities hitting the human body at high speed! That’s pretty cool.

And a tad nonsensical, which I am okay with. The “rules” of M. Night’s Magic Beach (the working title, I assume) are hazy: does the time warp only affect higher animals? What about bacteria? Organic material? Do clothes age? Do rocks? It’s magic, basically, and I like the idea that supernatural phenomena can ignore the rules we try to pin onto them.

Time comes for us all.

It does get a bit repetitive, though, and it becomes apparent that there’s simply not enough going on here to justify a feature-length running time of 108 minutes. Several characters fail to make much of a mark, but Rufus Sewell, Dark City (1998), has a lot of fun once it becomes clear his marble bag has a hole in it, and there are moments of PG-level body horror that impress. This being a Shyamalan joint, there’s a twist of sorts, and while I can’t bring myself to spoil it for you, I will say that it’s a cheat in terms of the cinematic language in play. Once the time comes for the film’s “ta-daaa!” moment, Shyamalan abandons the point of view of our small group of protagonists to give us a wider angle on what’s going on, and it breaks the narrative flow in a way I found unsatisfying.

Still, for what is effectively an extended Twilight Zone episode, Old delivers. It would function better at a tight 50 minutes or thereabouts, but if you’re up for what you know this filmmaker is liable to dish out, you’ll have a decent time.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Old is released through Universal Pictures Australia