Landing somewhere between The Happening and The Village on the Shyamalanometer of Narrative Gimmickry, M. Night Shyamalan’s Old places a dozen or so travelers together on a remote beach, then watches them live the rest of their lives in a day. Facing a strange phenomenon that greatly accelerates the aging process, strangers must collaborate in search of escape even as time worsens their deficiencies and the director strains (with ostentatious camera movement and some stunning scenery) to keep things from feeling like a Twilight Zone morality play.
Viewers who can take it at face value may find a chill or two here, but ultimately Old can’t escape the goofiness of its premise long enough to put its more poetic possibilities across successfully.
Struggles to rise above its inherent silliness.
Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps play Guy and Prisca, parents who want to take their kids Trent and Maddox (Nolan River and Alexa Swinton) on a nice vacation before breaking the news that they’re going to separate. Their strife is no secret, though: Mom and Dad struggle to relax and enjoy a moment, even in a tropical paradise where cocktails are tailor-made to their tastes.
Seeming to intuit their needs, the resort manager quietly confides that he has an especially beautiful, secluded spot he only recommends to guests he really likes. So what if he also sends a few other guests to the same spot, and if the driver who takes them there (Shyamalan) can’t wait to get back in the van and hustle away from the site? Soon our heroes and a couple of other parties are settled in on a pristine stretch of sand with crashing surf at their feet and a vast wall of craggy rock rising up behind them. Then they find the corpse.
The dead woman was a friend of a famous rapper (Aaron Pierre) who was already on the beach when these guys arrived. A doctor (Rufus Sewell) is pretty quick to accuse the Black man of foul play, and Guy (along with a level-headed nurse played by Ken Leung) has trouble keeping their confrontation from getting out of hand. By the time things are nearly calm, the kids are five years older. And whenever someone tries to run back to the road to get help, he becomes disoriented in the passageway through the rock and winds up passed out, back on the beach.
In the kind of scene familiar to viewers of genre pictures, Old desperately has one character guess what’s going on in the hopes the audience will buy it and play along: Surely, Leung’s nurse deduces, there’s some strange deposit of minerals in the massive rock wall that somehow affects the speed of cellular growth in our bodies. Based on how quickly the kids (and the doctor’s daughter) are developing, we appear to be aging two years for every hour we’re here. If we don’t get off this beach, most of us will die of old age by tomorrow morning!
Or sooner. Several vacationers have conditions that, once sped up, present sometimes-disturbing threats to themselves or others. Anxieties are predictably high, and a capable cast handles the scenario’s weirdness as well as they can. Special credit goes to Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie, who step in to play Trent and Maddox as teens and therefore have the additional burden of imagining what it’s like to leap from prepubescence to young adulthood in a matter of minutes.
Long before he gets to his trademark twisty ending (not a bad one, this time), Shyamalan uses his sci-fi premise to deliver some predictable ironies. Any viewer will guess how rapid aging will treat the doctor’s stick-thin trophy wife (Abbey Lee). But those familiar with the director’s beloved Philadelphia and its engrossing Mütter Museum of medical oddities may resent a plot point that museum surely inspired: Without giving anything away, a heartbreaking exhibit there tells a true story of deformity that is transformed into a grotesque cartoon here — a sight gag that may be the last straw for viewers struggling to take the sometimes clunky screenplay seriously.
Rod Serling-like ironies aside, the movie does finally deliver satisfying answers to a question or two we’d given up hope of answering. But doing so requires a return to a familiar genre mode after a tranquil sequence where things might’ve ended, almost happily, in a very different mood. We’re all stuck together on a rock, aging too quickly, coping with irrational neighbors. Maybe we should just watch the waves and enjoy the company of loved ones for as long as we have left?