Shyamalan sinks in leaky premise, poor dialogue
July 28, 2021
Since his ubiquitous breakout film The Sixth Sense in 1999, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has managed to capture the attention of the movie-going and non-movie-going public alike with tantalizing high-concept mysteries.
His follow-up Unbreakable grafted the nascent superhero genre onto a thriller that asked, “What if Superman lived in the real world and didn’t know he was Superman?”
His existential science fiction tale Signs wondered, “How would the world react if those farmers who saw crop circles were right after all?”
While films like Lady in the Water and The Happening haven’t been as nearly well-received as his earlier work, their loglines have undeniably lingered in the zeitgeist longer than their quality would suggest.
I expect a similar fate for his latest project Old, a mercurial and macabre misfire whose promising pitch is undone by a frustratingly marred execution.
Like Sands Through the Hourglass
The setting of Shyamalan’s story forms the basis for his water cooler-ready concept: A picturesque beach that causes unsuspecting visitors to age rapidly, turning hours spent in its “sands of time” into decades of their respective lives.
The secluded stretch of seaside is located near a tropical resort, where guests like Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are gayly greeted with customized cocktails at check-in, while their kids Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River) fawn over the 24-hour candy station.
Looking for a less crowded spot to lay over their towels, the family takes a shuttle with other vacationers, like Charles (Rufus Sewell) and Chrystal (Abbey Lee), to the aforementioned beach. It doesn’t take long for the supernatural effects of the area to induce panic among the group and leave them desperate to free themselves from its clutches.
Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, Old is a surprisingly dark and almost refreshingly morbid chiller from Hollywood’s most painfully earnest auteur. Not since Max von Sydow played chess with Death in The Seventh Seal have beaches and mortality been this inextricably linked.
Shyamalan uses his terrifying set-up to explore the helplessness evoked by natural aging and the vulnerability of watching our loved ones grow up faster than we’d like. An hour away from one’s children on a normal beach means a break to get through two chapters of a book, but on this beach it means they’ve missed two years of their lives.
Dialogue Sinks a Leaky Premise
The film is at its best when it ignores the rocky facets of its premise and explores the emotion of watching time evaporate so rapidly. But a jumping-off point is only as good as the crystal-blue water below it, and it doesn’t take long for the cliff jump that Shyamalan sets up to turn ugly.
He’s never been the most elegant screenwriter, but the dialogue here is about as on-the-nose and tin-eared as you’re likely to hear in any movie this year. Worse than the specific words characters use is their collective inability to grapple with the otherworldly effects of their surroundings, even when their presence and the nature of their power are beyond obvious.
Shyamalan tries his best to patch over the script’s plot holes — there’s a brief explanation as to why fingernails and hair don’t grow rapidly along with the rest of the characters’ bodies — but the story just can’t hold up to however many waves of scrutiny a given audience is likely to send its way.
Most disappointing is the profound lack of chemistry among the qualified cast, especially given how great some of the actors have been in recent projects. Krieps was an absolute revelation in Phantom Thread, one of the finest films of at least the past ten years, but aside from familial tenderness, she looks utterly lost here.
The bright young talent Thomasin McKenzie appears as an older version of Maddox but strains too hard and forces awkward line readings past the point of salvageability. Even with limited screen time, other actors like Aaron Pierre and Lost’s Ken Leung impart hollow performances to the flotsam.
Old has a combination of campiness and creepiness that leads to some shining moments in the sun, but it ultimately gets washed away by fragile filmmaking atop a faulty foundation.
New Movies Coming This Weekend
Coming to theaters and Premier Access on Disney+ is Jungle Cruise, a fantasy adventure starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt about a riverboat captain and a British scientist who go on a perilous mission to find the Tree of Life.
Playing only in theaters is The Green Knight, a medieval epic starring Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander which tells the story of King Arthur’s headstrong nephew and his quest to confront the eponymous tree-like creature.
Also playing only in theaters is Stillwater, a crime drama starring Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin, which follows a father traveling from Oklahoma to France to help exonerate his estranged daughter for a murder she claims she didn’t commit.