Some movies are clever, subtle, little things. They deftly offer up a notion, throwing it into the back of your mind before moving on to something else (“Inception”-style, if you will). But the idea sits there, lingering, growing in your mind until, at the film’s climax, it comes slamming forward with the force of a freight train and you see just how you were led down the path without ever knowing it was happening.
That is not what happens in M. Night Shymalan’s “Old.” No, he instead repeatedly bashes you with a thought at the film’s outset and then proceeds to act as though he hasn’t and that everything else is really super clever. It isn’t. It’s actually more obnoxious than clever. And that idea is important, but it’s not a unique stance even if it is wise: we should live in the moment rather than always looking into the future or being elsewhere mentally.
For this sci-fi/suspense/drama, Shyamalan provides the tale of a would-be happy family of four, father, Guy (Gael García Bernal); mother, Prisca (Vicky Krieps); son, Trent (Nolan River); and daughter, Maddox (Alexa Swinton). Off on a tropical holiday, the manager of the hotel suggests they head to a secluded beach for a day of quiet fun and arranges transportation. They board the bus along with another family and things go poorly.
It isn’t that this other family—father, Charles (Rufus Sewell), mother, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), mother-in-law, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant); and daughter, Kara (Kylie Begley)—is awful, although several of them are not great, the problem is that everyone on the beach is starting to age quite rapidly and that any time they try to leave the beach they faint and find themselves back on the sand. A guy who was on the beach the previous night, a singer known as Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), is still there (he may not have tried to leave) and when another couple shows, Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Jarin (Ken Leung), and they face the same problem.
Potentially it’s an intriguing notion, particularly as the kids aging into older and older bodies is an effective shift. That is, it’s not effective in the way it’s shown on screen, or not shown on the screen more accurately (Trent is also played by Luca Faustino Rodriguez, Alex Wolff, and Emun Elliott; while Maddox is also played by Thomasin McKenzie and Embeth Davidtz; and Kara by Mikaya Fisher and Eliza Scanlen), but rather in the idea that it’s still kids in these bodies no matter what they look like. Trent, even when played by a teen is still six on a mental level.
Of course, potentiality does not always turn into actuality and that’s one of the many issues with the film – Trent only acts like a six-year-old when the movie needs him to, when he needs to be older, he acts older. This is true of the other kids as well.
One of the great advantages of creating some sort of fantastical, supernatural, science fiction work is that if you don’t follow your own rules, you can claim that the reader/viewer/listener simply misunderstood them, whether they did or not. So, while it is initially established by the film that the kids still act like kids even when they look older, any complaint that they stop doing this will assuredly be met by an answer that starts with “actually” and then goes on to explain something that isn’t in the film but which is required to correctly interpret what is happening.
So, fine, let us move on from this notion and look at Shymalan’s camera (Mike Gioulakis is the director of photography). The whole island portion of the film (which is the vast majority of the work) is shot to resemble some sort of fugue state with plenty of long, slow moving camera shots that pan around the area and yet always seem to miss the important stuff. When the children in the film start to rapidly age, the camera absolutely refuses to show us their faces for an extended period. Rather than being clever or sneaky, it’s an annoyance that actively distracts from the work rather than adding to it. Rather than showing us characters stumbling back from the path off the beach and fainting, the camera conveniently misses it every single time and we just get them waking up in the sand. Rather than showing us the topography of the whole area, we only gets bits and pieces.
It is a cheat. The entirety of the movie is a cheat, and it isn’t a cheat in service of delivering some big message or an important idea. It is a cheat telling us, as we hear repeatedly at the film’s outset, to be happy living in the moment; to not wish your life away.
The affair is made worse by wooden acting and terrible dialogue. There are moments that feel so far off of normal human conversation that one has to imagine that the cast was told to deliver their lines in such a far-fetched manner. Why? Someone will be clever enough to have an answer (whether or not it is correct), but it is certainly not this reviewer.
When we do finally get to the end of the movie and some slight explanation is offered… well, that’s even worse. Are we meant to draw a larger, real-world, parallel to that which we see here (at least in the types of individuals, not specific actions)? The word “bollocks” comes to mind.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I need to see the film another half-dozen times to understand it’s true cleverness and the intent of the individuals behind it (Shyamalan wrote his script based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peters). That could be true and I have an itch to watch it again, but I’m going to stop there with one more viewing because I only have one life to live and I’m not going to wish it away hoping that sometime in the future “Old” suddenly becomes worthwhile.
photo credit: Universal Pictures