M. Night Shyamalan has had a rollercoaster of a career.
After his massive early trifecta of successes with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable (a personal favorite), and Signs, Shyamalan’s output with genre films has been mixed, at times laughable. While Shyamalan always has intriguing ideas, he often struggles with his execution. He gets so wrapped up in his writing style that he forgets to engage his audience with a consistent tone and proper characterization. While he has improved immensely in recent years, Old sees him falling back on his bad habits at their most baffling.
Old is a horror film the follows a family, Guy (Gael García Bernal), Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and their two kids, six-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). They, along with a few other people, are trapped on a beach where everyone rapidly ages. Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters, the premise is intriguing and could lend itself to some disturbing moments. It frankly sounds more like an episode of Tales from the Crypt than an entire feature film. It would be a struggle for any filmmaker to stretch the premise to a feature film, and we see Shyamalan struggle to meet that 108-minute runtime.
Despite working with a premise that could lend itself to engaging visual storytelling, Shyamalan seems allergic to it. He feels the need to have his characters explain every bit of characterization at its most awkward. At times, his characters literally scream their internal conflict and motivations rather than have a human conversation. The characters openly discuss every descriptive element of the film; no one sounds like a real person. It feels like Shyamalan is using his dialogue to pad the runtime, as it’ll take the characters 5-10 minutes to discuss something the audience already figured out. The dialogue is distracting, preventing the film from building any mood or atmosphere that I could lose myself in. It’s not helped that the film is stuffed with characters who are ultimately pointless. A third of the characters could be cut out of the film, and nothing in the story would change. All the characters are stock. The film goes out of its way to literally and vocally describe the characters as bluntly as possible but doesn’t provide personality to make them feel real. Thankfully, the actors can work with the clunky dialogue.
Some of the performances manage to rear some emotion out of Shyamalan’s writing. Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps both rear intensity and urgency out of how the beach is slowly killing them. Moreover, Alex Wolff, as the older Trent and Thomasin McKenzie, as the older Maddox, give excellent performances as forcibly aged kids. I completely believed they were kids trapped in the bodies of teenagers, and they communicated that unease and strangeness effectively. The film is at its strongest when Shyamalan uses the performances to naturally communicate subtler forms of body deterioration via aging, like blindness, deafness, or mental illnesses. These moments do work and are chilling, at times even reflective on the anxieties behind aging. The film needed more moments like these.
I’ll also give Old credit for one other important if unintentional element; it was an absolutely hysterical sit. I found myself laughing so hard at the weird dialogue and outlandish deaths, some of which made no sense whatsoever. The film reminded me of Shyamalan’s other infamously unintentional-comedy horror film, The Happening, which would make for a great double feature with Old. Old would be the A movie and The Happening would be the B-movie. The second half of the film is a massive improvement, as the film goes way more off rails with its set pieces, plus the genuinely creepy moments. This film will be memed to death, I swear.
Old probably would have worked better as a short film. In the second half, some moments are as creepy and impactful as Shyamalan probably wanted. There’s a solid 20-35 minute short film stuck in this confounding 108-minute monstrosity. I still had fun, but probably not in the way Shyamalan wanted. He may be still trying to figure out his style of balancing horror and comedy, as some of his more recent films, like The Visit and Split, achieve a horror and comic balance better. I think of a bad movie as a movie that leaves me bored, frustrated, or empty, and Old did none of that. I did have fun, even if it was at the film and not with the film. Old is worth the theatric experience as I trust you’ll get an audience crying with laughter at the insanity on display.
Old will be released in theaters on July 23rd