“There’s something wrong with this beach!”
During the height of the pandemic, while the world was shut down, I somehow got it into my head that, despite some notable holdovers, 2021 would offer very little in the way of new movies to experience. The idea of a cinematic wasteland was one that I couldn’t fathom and honestly felt would become a reality. It was such a relief to find that by the summertime, certain productions managed to get before the cameras. Titles such as Malcolm & Marie, No Man of God and the upcoming Dear Evan Hansen have all emerged as somewhat intimate chamber pieces whose mere existence shows how art could survive and possibly thrive in even the gravest of times. Adding to this crop of pandemic-era movies is the latest from M. Night Shyamalan, Old, a story totally dependent on isolation, fear, physical remoteness and the cruel reality of life slipping away. In many ways, it’s the perfect film to symbolize the past year with all its panic and uncertainty…on paper anyhow.
In Old, a family led by a married couple (Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps) on the verge of divorce have traveled to a wonderful spa resort for one last vacation before they break the news to the kids (Alexa Swinton and Nolan River). Soon, the family takes up an offer to join a group of other resort guests (including Rufus Sewell, Abby Lee, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Aaron Pierre) and travel to a secluded beach on a day trip courtesy of the resort. While the group enjoys the serenity and seclusion at first, it soon becomes apparent that something isn’t right. One by one, each member of the party starts to age at a rapid pace with no explanation. Soon the group realizes they need to find a way off the beach before it’s too late to leave.
I generally try and avoid any early reviews which pop up before a press screening when it comes to most films, but especially for a film by such an incredibly divisive filmmaker as Shyamalan. However, I couldn’t help but come across an early headline which indicated that the early buzz on Old fell into the categories of both genius and catastrophe. The poster for Old is indeed genius with its echoes of summer bliss juxtaposed against the kind of palpable horror that resonates with most of the population. Yet it ultimately does nothing but offer up false promises for moviegoers expecting a horror-filled comment on perhaps the most universal of human experiences. Despite its marketing, Old is not a horror movie. Anyone who knows of the premise going into it will find virtually no suspense to be had at watching the events unfold. What they’ll be treated to instead is a waiting game in which a collection of partially fleshed-out characters take far too long to decipher the strange occurrences around them. Looking at Old as a science fiction piece makes the experience a little bit easier and even a tad enjoyable. Given the reveal in the movie’s overlong third act, I’m almost certain that’s the genre this movie belongs in. But because this has been sold as a horror film, specifically an M. Night Shyamalan horror film, thrills, chills, wonder and dread are all expected, but thanks to the impressive marketing campaign and a script that never takes things as far as it could, any and all hopes for genuine suspense are crushed before the lights go down.
As much as Shyamalan fails with Old, he does manage to get more right than one might expect given how lackluster the overall result is. For starter’s the score for the movie is fun, large and appropriate. Even if it isn’t all that original, each musical cue of Trevor Gureckis’ score perfectly captures the maddening bewilderment taking place on the screen. The setting is also a particular highlight. With its many obvious photogenic angles and shots, the beach on which the action takes place gives off a lush tranquility that’s wonderfully upended thanks to the horrors taking place among the people on it. Shyamalan knows this and wastes no time in executing some creative setups that whet our appetite at what kind of visuals are on the other end. Finally, the plot does offer something for the audience to do when it’s revealed that everyone on the beach (the adults, anyhow) has all been brought there because they’re dealing with some form of health issue. Whether intended or not, there is fun to be had at guessing everyone’s particular ailments and how they will meet their end at the hands of them. One vacationer’s exit in a cave provides the right kind of spectacularly horrific setpiece that the rest of the movie is sorely lacking. Even if there isn’t much suspense in Old, certain moments such as that one, contain undeniable energy and electricity that ensure things never get boring.
Old is definitely a textbook case of not blaming the actors. The ensemble here is a talented one, but without actual characters to play, all of them are left stranded. A fight between Garcia Bernal and Krieps meant to give insight into who they are as a couple feels just as hollow as Sewell’s racial attacks and nitpicks at Lee’s trophy wife. With no one on screen given any dimension as far a characters go, the only thing the actors can do is play the action as (shoddily) written on the page and hope it works. It doesn’t.
The frustrating thing about Old is that it’s at the core of it lies a very solid premise for a film. But that’s all this ultimately is; a strong premise with some bare-bones scenes sketched out and acted by people standing in for actual characters. It’s difficult to say what kind of experience Old could have been had the novelty of the movie’s plot been kept a secret. Perhaps if audiences had been kept in the dark about the fate soon to befall everyone on the screen, the film could have been the kind of summer studio surprise there just isn’t enough of anymore. While the director has been heavily criticized for going too far with his twists and turns in the past, a recent reappraisal of 2004’s The Village, one of his most hotly debated films (and the point, some might say, when the tide turned for him) has shown that a good portion of today’s audiences appreciate the places Shyamalan took that film to. A similar approach might’ve helped with the admittedly intriguing Old, especially when the kindest thing you can say about it is that at least it’s better than The Happening.