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Universal // PG-13 // July 23, 2021
List Price: Unknown
The horror genre is meant to tap into our fears, which range from ghosts and demons to serial killers and home invasions. The most terrifying of horror movies are the ones that touch upon the horrors of real life. Growing old is inevitable. While not everyone is so lucky to reach old age and live a full life, it's considered to be as natural as death itself, yet many fear it when facing age and what comes with that. It's a bit surprising that more films in the genre haven't explored this topic more, as there are so many directions that a filmmaker can go in. However, M. Night Shyamalan's Old tackles just that.
Shyamalan's newest film is based on the graphic novel titled Sandcastle, written by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters. While it's certainly the inspiration, it isn't a direct adaptation by any means. The film follows Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their children, Trent (later played by Alex Wolff) and Maddox (later played by Thomasin McKenzie). They go on a tropical vacation to a gorgeous hotel with all of the accommodations that they could ever hope for. After they head to a secluded beach to relax for a few hours, they discover that something is very wrong; this beach is causing them to age rapidly.
However, this family isn't alone. They're on the beach with other strangers vacationing in the area. The other strangers include Charles (Rufus Sewell), Chrystal (Abbey Lee), Agnes (athleen Chalfant), and Kara (later played by Eliza Scanlen); Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird); and Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). They all come with different backgrounds and skills, some of which prove to be useful. These differences also prove to divide some of them, creating drama and tension that establishes bigger issues on this secluded beach. While some of them talk about some of their life regrets, none of the characters are given in-depth backstories. Perhaps because they're meant to be more of blank slates that represent us all, rather than individual characters. However, this does make it difficult to truly identify with any of them.
For moviegoers who hadn't already heard of the graphic novel, the trailer very much appears to be the typical odd Shyamalan-type plot that we've seen before in movies like The Happening. While there are certainly horror elements to Old, its core is more of a mystery/drama. What's occurring on the beach is absolutely horrifying to watch, although the film has more dramatic and intimate moments that focus more on the topic of aging than the situation on the beach. When we're young, we believe that we're untouchable and age isn't going to touch us. So, when confronted with rapid aging, these characters' sense of morals and philosophies change in the face of death.
While the film remains rather tense for the majority of its runtime, the story still has a bit of a sense of humor. While the children age physically, they aren't entirely aging in other ways. For example, the way that a teenager eats like a complete child or clothes beginning to not fit offer a bit of a chuckle. However, the comedy never pulls away from the tension or the severity of the situation that they're in. There's a sense of dread that exists throughout most of the film that creates a constant sense of uneasiness. Unfortunately, this can also be said about the cast's performances. Since Old was filmed during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, all of the actors' schedules cleared and the filmmaker got his dream cast. However, the delivery of the performances across the board are a bit strange. The dialogue is read in a way that is awkward and adds to the uncomfortable atmosphere of the film, although there are a few scenes where it sort of disrupts the immersion.
The big question moviegoers ask going into any Shyamalan film is: what is the twist going to be? Well, considering the fact that the graphic novel from which this is based has no twist, it was clear that he would be taking this story in a different direction. Unfortunately, this is where the film really goes downhill. The social message that Old is trying to make is clear, although it completely throws the film's tone off the tracks. That sense of terror and urgency is lost to a fairly weak plot twist. Narratively, it's a stretch, but tonally, it's an absolute travesty. The source material makes a much stronger statement with its ending, although it doesn't try to offer an explanation in the way that Shyamalan does.
At the end of the day, Old isn't Shyamalan's best film, but it's far from his worst. There's are a lot of good elements to the film that stand out, such as the tension that lingers underneath the surface for most of its runtime. There are some moments of good suspense and the film has an overall decent grasp on the fear of aging. However, the film suffers from some fairly big issues. The lack of depth in the characters makes it difficult to truly connect to them. Even if they're meant to be blank slates for the audience to see themselves in, it's difficult to latch onto a whole lot with such a simple premise; the awkward performances don't help. The film's twist took priority over making a decent ending. Maybe, just this once, Shyamalan should have abandoned the need to include a twist. Old delivers on its buildup of tension, although it struggles to engage on a dramatic level.