4/10 Like many, I’ve spent the past year looking for shining glimmers of normalcy wherever I can find it. I took in the Super Bowl, like I do every year, hunting for movie trailers, listing who’s confident enough to shell out for this advertising space and whether or not they present something different for this broader audience. The only trailer in Super Bowl LV was for M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, which all the way back in February 2021 came with an aggressive “only in theaters” tagline.
In Old, a handful of vacationers at a tropical resort are invited to a pristine private beach that only certain clients are made aware of. The alcove is a trap, a singularity in time that causes anyone who enters to age at a rate of two years per hour, from which they cannot leave. The vacationers suffer and die as parents’ medical conditions, ranging from terminal illnesses to just the knicks and knacks of an aging body, rapidly accelerate, and their children gallop through puberty and young adulthood.
Watching Old is an uneven experience, the type we’ve come to expect from post-crash Shyamalan. It feels like the movie is fighting against itself.
Most of the movie is spent poking holes in its own premise as the adults in the group try to will a scientific explanation for their plight into existence. It mostly feels like a sarcastic rant against people who watch movies to hunt for plot holes, and it’s about as much fun to watch characters try to logic their situation out as it would be to listen to your buddy who thinks Lord of the Rings isn’t realistic enough try to solve the same problem. Old should be about the pain and terror of mortality, not trying to work out its own fantasy.
Then again, it works quite well from the perspective of the characters themselves. It makes a lot of sense for the surgeon and the nurse to look at things medically, for the actuary and museum director to apply their work experience and for the panicking group therapist to try and get everyone in a circle to facilitate healthier communication, and it gets to the heart of the terror to see them try in vein to solve the problem – all their skill and knowledge cannot save them, no matter how they try. It also helps that the children characters are there to bear the emotional and visual brunt of what’s been done to them, so that emotion isn’t completely lost.
Old is a strange movie to look at. Cinematography Michael Gioulakis seems to have designed it around solving some of the problems its premise presents – again, the movie is constantly fighting itself. This is most obvious in its obvious efforts to hide the child characters in order to spring reveals when they’ve hit growth spurts and are replaced by new actors – the youngest characters are eventually played by four actors in the film. There are also a lot of weird camera angles meant to emphasize how far away characters are from each other – there’s a lot of distrust in the group, and they rarely cluster up, instead spending most of their time at far corners of the beach. It’s good they don’t try to show things they couldn’t possibly make to look real, but at a certain point, too much of what’s happening is off-screen.
It’s tough to watch Old without thinking about the climate and health care crises. The emotional core of the film is watching not just lives be stolen, but watching time be stolen, and specifically watching this happen to children who the eventual villains never cared about in the first place. You’re also watching people move from their 40s and 50s into old age with limited access to medical care – there’s a surgeon and a nurse out there doing their best, but you can’t exactly do yearly checkups – and several of the smaller conflicts stem from their bodies aging. Avoiding spoilers, both of these subtexts intensify as the movie goes on.
As the COVID-19 crisis somehow continues to intensify, it’s nice to see a movie from a director who’s still being snobbish about getting his work in theaters. Not only was Old aligning itself against streaming in February, but it’s come to theaters with a special message from Shyamalan attached at the front thanking viewers for returning to theaters, though this could be partially to help viewers recognize him – in addition to writing, directing and producing, Shyamalan has his customary cameo in Old, but in a role where knowing the actor is the movie’s director is meaningful knowledge. Is this Shyamalan’s legacy now? It’s probably for the best. For all his twists and as solid as some of his movies are, he’d probably benefit on the balance to go down in history primarily as one of the directors who, in 2021, insisted on the theatrical experience.