Shyamalan's latest brings an original concept, but lacks effective execution
M. Night Shyamalan has been going through a renaissance of sorts after his big-budget missteps in The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013). His return to smaller-budget horror/thriller fare has proven to be fruitful for the Philadelphia native, delivering original fare in the likes of The Visit (2015), Split (2016), and his Apple TV+ series Servant (2019-). His recent prolific streak of projects pushed him to undertake an entire film production (with safety measures) during the COVID-19 pandemic, thus delivering one of the few films fully produced under the pandemic: Old (2021).
Old is adapted from the 2010 graphic novel “The Sandcastle.” We follow a set of diverse hotel guests in a tropical island, as they are brought to a hidden beach. However, once there, they find that they cannot escape, akin to the dinner guests in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962). They are forced together and find that they are aging at an incredibly rapid rate, of one year for every thirty minutes.
It’s encouraging to see Shyamalan return to the boldness that made his cinematic beginnings so promising. His ambition and confidence as a filmmaker are returning with these smaller projects. However, ambition and bravery don’t always translate to quality. Old’s premise is far more interesting and original than its execution. Shyamalan seems to have the ingredients and pieces set up for a fascinating film in the first 20 minutes, but it slowly starts to unravel. Plot holes become immediately apparent, characters are forgotten and shunned sloppily in the narrative, and the restrictions of a PG-13 rating seem to hold Shyamalan back from pushing his film into true horror territory.
Old seems to suffer, perhaps, from being on a tight schedule due to COVID-19 protocols. This might be why the film feels like it is writing itself as it goes along. And Shyamalan indulges in his auteur cliches a bit too much, such as his go-to self-cameo and unnecessary twists in his endings. As such, the moving pieces and characters in Old seem to be bouncing aimlessly as if in a pinball machine, with no real heading and waiting to be dispatched hurriedly by the script.
Old does have fertile ground for symbolism and commentary. After having come out of a worldwide quarantine, the themes of being stuck in one place and having time fly by with missed life milestones is one that many can relate to. However, Old digs a bit deeper than that, and showcases a view of the world in which we are all too busy in our miniscule problems and fearing old age and death that we don’t notice the paradisiacal world that we live in. This commentary is only momentaneous and is usually abandoned for cliché thriller tropes when given the choice, but it proves to be intriguing, nonetheless. In fact, if Shyamalan had perhaps focused down on this message, his film might have been tighter and more compact, leading to more effective moments of tension, and actual character development, shaving off the unnecessary side-plots and resolutions.
Shyamalan is able to bring together a rather talented cast in Old, with specific mixes of underrated actors and up-and-coming talent. Thus, it is delightful to see more screen time given to the likes of Rufus Sewell, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Vicky Krieps, and also encouraging to see the progression of Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, and Eliza Scanlen. The whole cast is strong, yet the messy structure of the film doesn’t allow them to fully trace a satisfying character journey.
In the end, Old is a film with a fascinating premise, but whose actual execution leaves much to be desired. There are strong moments throughout, and the muddled structure doesn’t take away too much from the laid-back enjoyment that the film can provide. Old is still an encouraging sign in Shyamalan’s career, seen as a step into further ambition and creativity.