FILM 2021

M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Old’ is a Jumbled, Geriatric Mess

The premise is so thin that it grows yes – old – in minutes, and all the talent in the world can’t save it

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M. Night Shyamalan has tricked us again.  He’s given us all the signs of a great film — a star-studded cast, a high-concept premise, and an award-winning cinematographer (Mike Gioulakis). But Old is still a jumbled, incoherent mess.

The filmmaker has already copped to the fact that COVID-19 restrictions were a big part of the problem here, but that doesn’t excuse what ended up on screen.  Old makes little sense while you’re watching it, even less after you’ve seen it. Proper care wasn’t taken to make sure the premise worked. It’s basically Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel meets Fantasy Island, with an empty beach, a wonky script, a jittery camera, a cast who looks stranded, and of course, a supernatural twist.

Things start out promisingly enough as a lovely-looking family arrives at the Anamika resort, a ritzy getaway in the tropics. Guy and Prisca (Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps) are here to relax with their 10-year-old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old son Trent (Nolan River), soaking up all the sights and sounds the island has to offer. They take a trip to a nearby beach, where only certain guests are allowed. “Special guests,” says the hotel manager.

Then things get weird, real weird. The kids feel their bathing suites tighten. A psychologist (Nikki Amuka-Bird) has a seizure. The elderly mother of a trophy wife (Abbey Lee) drops dead, while her husband (Rufus Sewell) rambles on about Jack Nicholson. A rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) walks around with a nosebleed, not that anyone notices. Everyone’s too busy gasping at how Maddox and Trent have conspicuously transformed from kids to teenagers (now played by Thomasin McKenzie and Alex Wolff, also great in last week’s Pig).

Though everyone tries to leave, they simply can’t. Any attempt to cross the perimeter around the beach causes a blackout. Soon, everyone realizes they are aging at an alarming rate, a  phenomenon that should have cultivated questions about life, love, loss, and time, as it did in Shyamalan’s early work (The VillageThe Sixth Sense). Instead, screen time is devoted to the physical and psychological horror of this accelerated, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” decline.

It’s a faulty idea, and faulty execution, especially because the stakes go from entirely too low (graying hair) to entirely too high (dying of old age). It’s never convincing as to why a certain character, who we know nothing about, would suddenly turn into a raving lunatic, or why a model would suddenly have a 90-year-old’s back spasms.

The premise is so thin that it grows yes, old, in minutes, and all the talent in the world can’t save it. The make-up and prosthetics are impressive. Time, as one might imagine, wears on faces like rotting fruit, an interminable diagnosis the makeup artists make abundantly clear. But Shyamalan’s script also has wrinkles, and you can’t help but notice a glaring number of plot holes: how come some kids age faster than others? Why does one corpse rot while another doesn’t? And don’t even bother questioning the twist. In Shyamalan’s hands, we are all lost at sea.   ❖

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