Few genre filmmakers have earned such wild swings in fan reactions as M. Night Shyamalan, with even his most devout fans being able to acknowledge that he has made a number of unexpected missteps with various projects. Films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs earned him immense praise early on, while efforts like The Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender saw him lose favor among general audiences and fanatics at large. Even following those disappointing efforts, films like The Visit and Split proved he still had a number of compelling ideas. His latest outing, Old, thrusts viewers back into the abyss of experiences that are both tonally and narratively uneven and inconsistent, demonstrating yet again that while his direction and staging of unsettling sequences are almost unmatched, the scares don't matter if the script is too absurd.
Taking advantage of a chance internet advertisement, a family heads out on a tropical vacation that seems perfectly crafted to their desires. When they journey to a seemingly isolated beach, they learn they weren't the only ones alerted to the paradise, as the uncovering of a corpse results in the horrifying discovery that every guest begins to age at a rapid rate, growing older by years in a matter of hours.
Shyamalan has made his love of The Twilight Zone a known fact for years, with Old possibly being his most overt tribute to the Rod Serling series. While his other films feature all manner of otherworldly events, from aliens to monsters to ghosts, they all spend a majority of their first acts grounding audiences in reality before thrusting them into surreality. Old, however, takes a mere 15 minutes to depict a scene in which a woman has an epileptic seizure in the middle of a restaurant, with her husband's reaction being more akin to her having dropped her fork. It's clear Shyamalan was attempting to depict a loving relationship in which such an issue was joked about and normalized, as not to put pressure on the woman, though the blasé response instead signals that this is merely the beginning of otherwise talented actors failing to convey human emotions.
Given that their episodes typically ran less than 25 minutes, The Twilight Zone could get away with expediting the bizarreness of virtually any situation, as the pace would mean the story was wrapped up at an appropriate speed. Old, though, has to maintain this tone for nearly two hours, so witnessing a husband essentially shrug off a seizure so early on makes the rest of the narrative an arduous experience.
The heightened tone of the film does somewhat replicate how real people would react to such bizarre situations, as the horrifying ordeal would likely ignite shock in its victims. If you buy into this conceit, you might be willing to overlook some of the story's overall characterizations of one-dimensional figures, but when you meet a rapper who has named himself "Mid-Size Sedan" (one of many ludicrous decisions in the script) that every other character accepts as a plausible nickname without question, each passing minute sees the film slipping further and further away from any glimpse of realism. Of course, genre films don't necessarily have to unfold in our reality, but when you set the stage for a horror story to seemingly take place in our world, it's hard to buy into the experience when every character sounds like a robot from another planet attempting to replicate genuine human interactions and failing catastrophically.
Like other Shyamalan films, regardless of how a preceding film has fared, he still manages to enlist impressive actors, with Old being no exception. Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps are the standouts as the parents, while Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie also make the most of the material as children who have aged far too quickly. Almost every other character in the film makes it difficult to determine if they are staring into the middle distance as an acting choice or they are merely bringing to life the script which may have demanded such detachment, while also forcing them to swing wildly from subdued and devoid of humanity to enraged and exaggerated, leaving little room for nuance.
Inspired by the graphic novel Sandcastle by writer Pierre Oscar Levy and artist Frederik Peeters, there are still some compelling ideas being explored in the narrative, despite how the script holds back its potential at every turn. While trees turning on humanity or supernaturally strong kidnappers with multiple personalities might not evoke fear in all audiences, as seen in his other films, Shyamalan knows that growing older is something that no one can escape. Whether it's your own mortality, having to witness how the small sacrifices you've made can result in dire consequences or how medical issues you initially overlook can come with devastating results, or if you see those you love the most decay or mature at an expedited rate, denying you the opportunity to cope with their eventual demise, Shyamalan tackles a number of different age-related fears all within one storyline, reminding us that he's earned his legacy as a genre storyteller. Sadly, the characters telling this story are still almost completely devoid of any believable humanity, though the core concepts will still leave you pondering your own future.
Regardless of the script's many issues and ways in which it contradicts rules for this mythology it has established, Old still manages to be visually compelling. A gorgeous beach marks for a different locale in Shyamalan's filmography, as many of his films unfold in suburban or metropolitan Pennsylvania, which automatically makes it stand out aesthetically. With the fears of the narrative being less rooted in tangible threats and more in the existential fears, Old's horrors aren't manifested in quite the same way, denying those audiences expecting a full-blown horror show their expectations. One scene in a cave, however, does mark for a disturbing sequence that likely couldn't be realized outside of this specific narrative and marks one of his most effective encounters Shyamalan has depicted in years.
Thanks to the ambitious narratives he aims to deliver audiences, Shyamalan has earned a reputation of offering viewers entirely unexpected reveals in a film's finale, whether that be explaining the narrative at some point in the final act or leaving such a twist for a film's final scenes. Old falls into the former category, offering one explanation for the events in the second act, while the final act leads towards a reveal that contextualizes the entire ordeal without necessarily feeling like a "twist." This reveal feels like one of the most earned revelations in his career, which also manages to come with some cultural significance and shines a light on real-world villainy in ways his previous efforts could never have accomplished, which almost makes up for the absurdity witnessed throughout the rest of the film. Unfortunately, you'll quickly be brought back down to Earth when the credits roll and you grapple with the bizarre adventure you just watched unfold, though it's worth celebrating even a glimmer of success, no matter how short-lived that glory might be.
Even though Old might be one of Shyamalan's biggest misses, his various other stories have earned him at least a few more years of optimism, as even he would likely agree that not all art is for everyone. Old assuredly has some important themes that will resonate with select audiences, yet it's ultimately another example of just how strong of a director Shyamalan can be while his scripting abilities fail to reach those visual heights, as whatever potential this story had, it is all completely squandered with outlandish and inhuman performances. What could have been his most humanistic outing ends up being his most alien, which says a lot for a filmmaker who has literally delivered us movies about aliens.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Old hits theaters on July 23rd.