Old is the newest thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, which exploits our fear of ageing in a frightening and effective way.
We try to take care of ourselves the best we can. We try to eat right, exercise, and keep our mind sharp and focused. On TV we watch millionaire athletes defy their age with expensive recovery and training routines, while infomercials explain to us the latest in anti-wrinkle creams and botox procedures. As a society we are deathly afraid of getting old. We want to experience our life to the fullest for as long as possible, and we will seemingly do anything we can to delay ageing and the onset of death.
Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Old, plays off of our modern crusade against the natural progression of time. Instead of a serial killer, or supernatural entity trying to track down and kill his characters, it is the natural decay of their own bodies. The film follows a family who travel to a resort island for vacation. There they are taken to a secluded beach along with others. As they spend time on the beach, strange events begin to occur. Soon they realize that they are aging very quickly. To make matters worse the beach is inescapable.
Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Written By: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff
Release Date: July 23, 2021
What Shyamalan does with Old is spelled out in what might be the shortest, most fitting title ever for a movie. He manipulates our fear of aging, through the catalyst of supernatural occurrences. If you’ve seen the trailer, it basically spells out the plot for you. But while the story doesn’t really deviate from that single note, you won’t necessarily mind because so much is happening. As the characters are aging at a rapid rate, they are having to quickly come to terms with their rapidly depleting mortality.
For the kids, they have to deal with the challenges of becoming adults over the course of a few hours. For the adults, they have to come face to face with debilitating diseases and deteriorating senses. The film does a good job depicting various characters’ unique reactions to their experiences, even if the script’s clunky dialogue makes the delivery feel a bit unnatural. Shyamalan’s films often take a scientific approach to diagnosing the problem and figuring out a solution. Old plays out in the same manner, culminating in a big reveal at the end to place the film’s events into a new perspective.
Because of how the film is constructed and plays out, it is consistent with Shyamalan’s previous work. That means a lot of the film’s scariest moments are psychologically driven. There are cases where characters have certain conditions and so they realize how they are going to die before it actually happens, and there is nothing they can do about it. Then there are those cases where a character’s death is sudden and unexpected, usually because a desperate decision is driven by fear.
That means there is less of an emotional connection to the film’s plot than a reactionary one. The silliness of the premise is a hurdle that Shyamalan asks his audience to overcome relatively early in the film. Indeed, his method of introducing us to characters is having a child walk up to them and ask them their name and occupation. There’s an inorganic feeling to the way the film opens, but that lack of fluidity has been something Shyamalan has always struggled with, and the film isn’t necessarily relying on the audience being able to relate with the characters anyway.
What the awkward dialogue does allow is for Shyamalan to sprinkle in clues which will be necessary later on to diagnose the situation and add context to certain events as they unfold. So, in this regard the stilted style is important. With a trailer that basically spills the beans about what is happening, Shyamalan isn’t necessarily trying to hide his intent. We know something is up from the beginning, and so we take the facts in however we can get them. At the same time it starts things off on an off-kilter feel. Immediately Shyamalan is telling his audience they are not in control.
Once the introductions are out of the way, Shyamalan leads his audience to the beach (literally) where things get even more out of control. The camera bounces back and forth between different characters as more and more shocking things happen to them. What starts out as a relaxing day at the beach where we know something is going to go wrong ends up in a situation where it goes wrong in ways we could not have imagined. This is where the film really takes hold, as it leaps from one emergency to the next. It is an hour of intense chaos, and those facts delivered to us early on in haphazard fashion become increasingly valuable.
Shyamalan isn’t afraid of demonstrating the effects of aging in graphic detail. While the film’s PG-13 rating means the camera pans up at the most squeamish moments, Shyamalan still leans heavily on body horror to demonstrate the changes experienced by the characters. As such, the makeup effects are quite impressive, slowly aging the characters over the course of the film. For the young characters, the film uses different actors at different points in the film to demonstrate their growth.
Shyamalan even uses some gimmicky camera tricks to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Despite the majority of the film taking place in one location, it feels impressively dynamic. With sweeping establishing shots the camera covers a lot of ground, and gives the impression of a wide open space. This contradicts typical claustrophobia-obsessed horror filmmaking because Shyamalan is confident in his topic. The issues the characters are dealing with are all inside them, and no amount of open space will allow them to escape.
But not all of the camera tricks are effective. Some of the cuts are very jaunting, and do make the film have an uneven, almost patchwork feel. Shyamalan uses close ups of parts of the character’s bodies to prevent having to look at their ageing faces. This is helpful when he is trying to present the next iteration of one of the children as they age, but the technique is obvious and so it dulls the impact of the big reveal. Similarly, the film cuts away from a situation too often to focus on another. While this does add to the paranoia and general level of chaos, it makes the perspective seem forced, instead of natural.
Indeed, Shyamalan has always struggled with the heavy-handed nature of his films. Old is not a showcase in subtlety. Clues to figuring out the situation are laid out plainly, and even spoken point-blank by the characters. Shyamalan has always utilized high-concept motivations, but rarely does he allow his audience to find out the truth by themselves. It is almost as if he is so proud of his idea he wants to make sure you don’t miss it.
That is perhaps the biggest flaw of Old; from a storytelling perspective it forgets that finding out the truth isn’t the same as knowing the truth. Thankfully, there is more to this film than revealing the filmmaker’s proud secrets. Through the combination of physical and psychological horror, Old finds an unusual way to frighten us. It uses our own innate yet selfish desire for life against us, and brings that fear to the surface in a very dynamic and unrelenting set of events. M. Night Shyamalan has done crazy before, but Old is just bonkers.