Time is one thing we never seem to have enough of. On Friday, July 23, 2021 Director M. Night Shyamalan (Signs 2002, Glass 2019) gives us a new type of killer: life.
Based on the 2011 graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, Old explores the true horror of mortality as a group of vacationers are trapped on an island where an entire lifetime passes in a matter of hours. Old plays like Horror on the surface, taking place on a beautiful tropical beach. Underneath the sun, though, it is as terrifying as any jump scare-filled slasher, but only when you stop to consider it. How do you escape the inevitability of time when days pass in seconds, years in hours? While Shaymalan is known for twisty, tension-filled Horror/Sci-Fi, the infamous director scales back for this up-close examination of humanity that shows off both his greatest strengths and most glaring weaknesses.
When father Guy (Gael García Bernal: Y Tu Mamá También 2001, Here on Earth series), mother Prisca (Vicky Krieps: Hanna 2011, The Phantom Thread 2017), and their children Maddox (Alexa Swinton: Emergence series, Billions series) and Trent (Nolan River: New Girl 2018, Adverse 2020) head to a too-good-to-be-true tropical resort for a final family vacation before telling the kids about their impending separation, all seems well enough.
A daylong excursion finds them in the company of a surgeon (Rufus Sewell: Dark City 1998, The Man in the High Castle series), his much younger wife (Abbey Lee: Mad Max: Fury Road 2015, The Neon Demon 2016), a nurse (Ken Leung: Lost series, Industry 2020), a psychologist (Nikki Amuka-Bird: Jupiter Ascending 2015, Quarry 2016), and a rapper (Aaron Pierre: Krypton series, The Underground Railroad 2021). Before too long, the group realizes that wounds heal in an instant, the kids are no longer fitting into their swimsuits, and hidden medical conditions worsen before their eyes. Any attempt at escaping their time-warped beach finds them blacked out in the sand—they are trapped by time.
There is a metaphor here—that life and mortality are inescapable. It is one of several metaphors that Shyamalan packs into Old, but does not get the meditation it deserves. Old is a film at odds with itself, at once force-feeding its audience with lazy expository dialog and also expecting us to do all the philosophical legwork.
Too many ideas are floated but never followed through, but that is not to say that Old does not have its powerful moments. The best of these come through in the children, who are thrust into puberty and adulthood without the life experience that comes with age. Played by Alex Wolff (Patriots Day 2016, Hereditary 2018), Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace 2018, Jojo Rabbit 2019), and Eliza Scanlen (Babyteeth 2019, Little Women 2019), these kids must face life’s greatest challenges in a matter of hours while reconciling an expanded consciousness with the experiences of a child. These performances give us a glimpse at the goal Shyamalan may have strived for.
Characters rarely connect in any meaningful way despite having a stellar ensemble cast. Even when the group is whittled down and they begin to deduce what is going on, we aren’t given enough to care about their inevitable fates. Much of that comes down to dialog and delivery, which is often flat and poorly delivered. The connection we do get is thanks to intriguing camerawork. Extreme closeups, strange angles, and unconventional movement bring the film to life and guide the story far better than the script.
The pacing moves as quickly as time on the beach, but the film still drags in places. Thankfully, the stunning visuals and unraveling mystery are enough to keep things interesting. The insistence on poor dialog over visual storytelling kills any attempt at poignancy, and yet the artful cinematography can steal the show. If nothing else, Old shows that Shyamalan is heading in a promising new direction of more reflective, mature filmmaking. We can only wonder where he will go from here. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Old 2.5 out of 5 stars.