A secluded beach becomes the backdrop for mystery and supernatural terror in M. Night Shyamalan’s Old. As with many of the works in Shyamalan’s filmography Old, which is an adaption of the graphic novel Sandcastles by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, is built on a rather intriguing premise. Unbeknownst to those who traverse this sandy terrain, time is sped up to the point where every half hour spent on the isolated beach ages them a year in their life. While this unique approach to the fleeting nature of time sustains one’s curiosity for longer than it really should, Shyamalan inadvertently backs himself into a corner that he repeatedly tries to talk his way out of.
Rather than simply showing the varying effects that the beach has on those who find themselves stuck on it, Old twists itself into unnecessary knots trying to verbalize every single beat. This starts almost immediately when Guy and Prisca Capa (Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps) and children 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River), arrive at the posh Anamika resort. Thanks to Trent’s direct approach of asking strangers “what’s your name and what’s your profession?”, a trait related to his gift of memorization, a tool that carries no weight at all in the film, Shyamalan quickly establishes several of the individuals who will become nature’s prey.
Prior to arriving at the “exclusive” destination where the story will take place, the film makes it clear that the island getaway is meant to be a final happy family vacation for the Capas. After the trip Prisca plans to tell her children that she has been diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor. Encouraged by resort management to spend time at the secluded beach, the family’s vision of a quiet day is disrupted when they discover another family has also received the same recommendation. While the presence of Charles (Rufus), his elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), his vain trophy wife Chrystal (Abby Lee) and their 6-year-old daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey), is a mild inconvenience, it pales in comparison to the horrors that arrive shortly after their driver (Shyamalan) drops them off with instructions on how to find the picturesque shoreline.
Before they can truly soak in their lush surroundings, the joyous mood is killed when a dead body surfaces in one of the crevasses of the bay. Unsure of how the woman died, but learning that she is linked to the mysterious man, a rapper named Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who was already on the beach when they arrived, things begin to get dire when they discover that they are unable to leave. As if trapped within an invisible force field, tensions escalate when they all realize that they are aging at a rapid pace.
As the children display the most drastic physical changes, Shyamalan playfully draws out the reveals for each significant transformation. Focusing on the kids’ eyes and the back of their heads, he builds up the anticipation of each shocking new stage. Through the extreme close-ups and frequently spinning the camera, Shyamalan replicates the dizzying experience of his characters. Unfortunately, the visual queues that would normally amplify the terror are frequently undermined by the film’s incessant need to verbalize every single phenomenon that occurs.
With each new hypothesis and action, no matter how far-fetched, that is vocalized the film becomes increasingly comical and silly. Furthermore, Old wants to be a film that conveys several messages about the importance of family, the fleeting nature of time and racial prejudice, but never takes the time to flesh out any of these ideas. This is most egregiously evident when examining Mid-Size Sedan’s brief arc. He is not only subjected to racial profiling by Charles, but also endures multiple acts of racially charged violence. One would think that Charles’ initial violent outburst would lead to him being temporarily placed in physical restraints but, like a petulant child, he is essentially asked to go into “timeout” away from everyone while still being allowed to roam freely. His whiteness and professional credentials instantly deflect from him as the potential threat he is. He is only seen as dangerous when his antics hit too close to home for the Capa family.
While the importance of family, and doing anything to protect them, has been prominent in Shyamalan’s work, it feels problematic here. Especially given how willing Guy and Prisca are to turn a blind eye to the plight of those not in their inner circle. Though Trent and Maddox may endure the most emotional growth over the course of the film, Trent in particular experiences love and loss in one of the worst ways imaginable, they are still kids at their core.
The childlike innocence that permeates portions of Old never quite meshes with the supernatural aspects of the film. The disjointed nature of the film is directly tied to the fact that Shyamalan spends so much time trying to explain the mechanics of the beach, and each turn the film takes. Clocking in around 88 minutes and playing like an overly long X-Files episode, the film is a scattered collection of ideas and messages that rarely carry any significance in the grand scheme of the narrative. For a film that contemplates the human life cycle through the chilling nature of time, Old feels past its expiration date before one even hits the final reveal.