Cresting onto the summer season like the sun on our face and waves at our feet, M. Night Shyamalan brings us the kind of high concept schlock that has been missing since the post-pandemic return to theatres has offered little big scale entertainments outside of franchises. This oasis of scary silliness is Old, a beach-set ensemble piece where nothing is at first what it seems—even the telltale warning signs of some of the director’s worst habits. Adapted from Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters’ graphic novel Sandcastle, the film first appears like another Shyamalan bomb on the level of The Happening’s groaningly stilted dialogue and lack of trust in the audience’s intelligence to surmise what’s going on as we watch it. However, Shyamalan quickly finds a stride that results in an all-together fun and touching dose of genre storytelling.
Old takes place on an island paradise where several families, including our primary one led by Vicky Krieps and Gael García Bernal, find a private beach cove to escape their secret woes. As the day progresses, the appearance of a dead body awakes suspicions among those on the beach. But the anxiety really sets in when they begin to notice bizarre rapid aging happening among the children. With a game and sturdy ensemble that also includes Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Rufus Sewell, the nightmare rapidly accelerates in the hot sun as their family traumas are brought to light.
Placing itself somewhere between The Village and Lady in the Water in terms of potential for passionate response on either side, here is another Shyamalan entry likely to divide fans on the merits and cringes within its sometimes wild swings in quality. Old is imperfect in the way that many Shyamalan’s are: the dialogue is deeply pedantic about who people are and what is going on, a good number of shots are quite poorly executed, and his archetypes are riddled with broad cliches. And yet, it’s also his most entertaining in nearly two decades, and the most successful on the terms it sets for itself.
A protracted finaled explains everything without a single bit of mystery remaining, perhaps exposing Shyamalan’s too timid approach to the film’s Twilight Zone inspirations where some open-endedness might have been more effective. If anything, he is chasing a more palatable conclusion than the allegorical bleakness of the source material. As a piece of adaptation, Old is curiously half-bold, half-uninspired; Shyamalan throws in more gnarly body horror elements and character notes, but the coda suggests a lack of faith in the audience to buy the concept on face-value. More troublesome are the intellectual implications of Old’s final chapter in our time where distrust of science has proven to have catastrophic effects; one can assume it’s accidental or simply not thought through on Shyamalan’s part, but it does limit the ending’s ability to satisfy.
But Old’s emotional conclusion, which comes a bit before the credits actually roll, will be what the film is remembered for and what will earn it its most vocal fans. Once again, Shyamalan is dealing in heavy metaphors, but here it is more emotionally resonant and earnestly achieved than anything the blockbuster auteur has made since Signs. Where sometimes the filmmaker’s attempts at grander themes like family and time have produced embarrassing results on the level of greeting card sentimentality, Old strikes the right balance of allegory and feeling. This time, Shyamalan handles it more confidently and with more understatement opposite the horror the contextualizes these themes around.
Undoubtedly a mixed bag, but ultimately a modest success, Old captures M. Night Shyamalan’s cornball tendencies at their most endearing.