M. Night Shyamalan’s latest is technically well made but stretched too thin due to an overinflated ensemble and wonky pacing.
No cute jokes, no games. Let’s just get the pun out of the way from the top: Old is not a film that ages well. It’s an idea movie. It’s one that pegs itself on a concept, and yet, for the first 40 minutes or so, is bolstered by its more baffling choices. The dialogue feels like it was run back and forth through Google Translate a half-dozen times. The delivery is startlingly stilted, so much so that the sheer artifice combined with the ostentatious camerawork often borders on Camp. As hard as it is to pin down, it’s actually quite stimulating. What it gives us is too specific to dismiss as naive, so why doesn’t it actually working in the end?
Like most offerings from M. Night Shyamalan, that’s sort of a loaded question. The premise, based on Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters’ graphic novel Sandcastle, is simple. All staying at a resort, several people go on an excursion to a beach. Then, their bodies start acting up. Then, they start aging. They soon deduce a half-hour to be equivalent to one year, and, stranded without cell service and unable to walk too far from the coast without blacking out, are left to carry out their natural lives in one day. When Old works, it’s because it, like its characters, has no time to slow down. When it takes a breath, it deflates.
The uneven pacing is one thing, but the inability to work with its excess of characters is another. First introduced are Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), whose rocky relationship they’re hiding from kids Trent (Luca Faustino Rodriguez) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton). At the resort are the bougey Chrystal (Abbey Lee); her husband, Charles (Rufus Sewell); their daughter, Kara (Mikaya Fisher); and his mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Also there is another couple, Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird). Oh! And a rapper called Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). Please, can we scale this back?
It’s an ensemble of 11 in a picture that could have used five or six. Most of them have one character trait, not real pathos, the film holds the unspooling dynamics upon. Some of them lean toward feeling all but useless thematically, even sometimes narratively, and Shyamalan’s script is too crowded to turn anyone into a real person. Worse yet, for the allegory it is, it’s also too overstuffed for anyone to register as a fitting archetype. They’re all stuck in some sort of scriptwriting purgatory, so to speak, the result stretching itself too thin to work.
Instead, it functions in pieces, most of which are in the first half. The aforementioned line readings engage thanks to the technical filmmaking; Shyamalan and his regular DP as of late, Mike Gioulakis, complement the ersatz connection between characters, the camera trucking left and right to follow a conversation. Later on, they rotate their approaches. 360-degree pans, negative space, and handheld camerawork all get a few moments here and there. As showy as they may appear at first, there’s a primal haze to the choices that tether the action to the film’s own version of reality.
It’s when characters begin to process the situation at their own pace that Old finds its stride. It’s when Shyamalan’s eye mirrors those onscreen that, with everything going on, things feel like features rather than bugs. It would have been nice, then, for Old to have the courage of its convictions throughout. As the tension rises, it becomes increasingly clear to what extent the film suffers from its PG-13 rating. The gravity of its darkest moments is only as memorable as what the movie is actually allowed to show and just past an hour in, it goes from spreading itself too thin to simply pulling its punches.
The problem is that, beyond the underwritten characters, Shyamalan’s approach lacks the philosophy, introspection, or look at ephemerality it needs to pull off what it ultimately attempts.
For much of its back half, the movie tries to mature past its humorous undercurrents into a true meditation on mortality. The problem is that, beyond the underwritten characters, Shyamalan’s approach lacks the philosophy, introspection, or look at ephemerality it needs to pull off what it ultimately attempts. The script eventually takes its foot off the gas in an attempt to let characters ruminate on their waning futures, but alas, it’s incongruent with what came before. More importantly, the overall product cements itself as an example of an idea that’s inherently fascinating but lacking the focus to really bring it to fruition.
It’s not an abject failure, even if the last 15 minutes imply that Old never really knew what it was going for all along. It’s like a parlor trick in that sense. It has its moments and entertains on a fundamental level, but what it leaves us with is a tacky, almost incomplete feeling. Maybe the movie thinks that’s what life is. Or, you know, maybe not.
Old is now in theaters.