M. Night Shyamalan likes twists. All of his movies are obsessed with including them, whether they’re done well like in The Sixth Sense, or terribly like in Glass. I don’t know why he loves them so much, but we all just kind of accept he has a fetish for them. Ask yourself this: is an M. Night Shyamalan movie without a twist really an M. Night Shyamalan movie?
For most of the runtime of Old, I kept asking myself what the twist was going to be. It’s there. It’s hiding in wait. But what would it be? Well, I can tell you this right now: your enjoyment of Old is almost entirely going to hinge on what you think of this M. Night Shyamalan twist.
His movies live and die by them, so naturally, the same applies to Old. The premise is set up well, it all rises to an effective climax, and then the twist comes and it’s… pretty good, actually. Not his best twist, but not as bad as it could have been. And I think that’s a good way to summarize Old. It’s not his best movie, but it’s nowhere near his worst one.
Low bar, I know.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Release Date: July 23, 2021 (Theatrical)
Old centers on a family taking a nice vacation to an undisclosed island resort. While there, the family learns about a private beach away from prying eyes and decides to spend the day there. Sadly, they weren’t the only ones told about the beach as seven others were let in on the secret. Once they arrive, however, some supernatural force prevents them from leaving. To make matters worse, the beach causes everyone there to rapidly age. For every half-hour they’re there, they will age a year. An entire day on the beach will age them by about 50 years.
That’s an excellent premise for a horror-themed thriller. There are some fairly conventional set pieces that appear, like a corpse rapidly decaying or a person gradually losing their hearing as they age, but it’s the more creative twists that really shine a light on how demented this beach is. A woman with hypocalcemia has her bones break as she ages but they heal almost instantly in the wrong positions, making her into a twisted mass of flesh and bone screaming for death. A child becomes a teenager and in the span of 20 minutes becomes pregnant and gives birth, afraid with no idea what’s happening or what it even means to be pregnant. It’s actually pretty terrifying, especially if you have gerascophobia.
The best thing that Old does is it fills the audience with complete hopelessness. All of the characters are suffering on the beach, with many of them dying and slowly realizing that this is where they are going to die. Some of them try to theorize why they’re rapidly aging, but it doesn’t matter. Others try to escape, but it never works out. None of it matters by the end. In a day, everyone on that beach will die either from each other, their unique medical conditions they either develop or had already contracted or trying to escape. It can be really bleak.
But just when you start to get into just how well the concept is being executed, something happens that makes you remember this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie. For all of the goodwill the premise and its initial execution may bring, that doesn’t mean this is a consistent experience. The writing is stilted and forced, with characters not listening to each other and speaking how Shyamalan THINKS humans talk -so they sound more robotic than Robocop-. The children are all aggravating and don’t act like any children I’ve ever met (seriously, has Shyamalan ever met a kid?). The kids even have more philosophical conversations than the psychologist in the group.
And of course, for all of the times it’s meant to be deadly serious and instill you with dread, you can’t help but laugh. In a key scene, a woman has a rapidly growing tumor and will die in mere minutes unless someone does something to remove the tumor. While this is happening, one character is constantly asking each other what movie Jack Nicholson starred alongside Marlon Brando in (it was The Missouri Breaks). I’m sure it’s meant to be portrayed seriously, showing how one character’s mental faculties are rapidly declining, but it didn’t have to happen in a scene that was otherwise overly intense.
All of that builds up to the inevitable twist, which I will withhold from discussing in any specific detail here. I will say that I found it worked out pretty okay. There are a few plotholes attached to it and when you realize what’s happening, you can tell the movie wasn’t very subtle about the hints that it dropped. Ultimately, it made sense. It shed new light on the beach and does put into a new context if the experiences of the people stranded on that beach had any benefits to it.
Old isn’t Shyamalan’s best and I am nowhere near confident enough to say that he’s back as a competent director. The man’s library is too uneven and inconsistent for me to comfortably say that he’s out of his legendary rut, but Old is a step in the right direction. It has a great premise with a dynamite mood that gets bogged down by the usual Shyamalan trappings.
If another director was in charge of this production, then we may have had one of the best horror movies of the year. As it stands, Old is an entertaining horror film, but one that almost definitely could have been done better.