With an jampacked cast marooned on a beautiful but deadly holiday paradise, it’s not long before M Night Shyamalan’s Old takes on the feel of an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery or even, on occasion, an outright slasher movie where the killer is time itself. It’s this instantly compelling premise that carries the uneven-but-fun Old through its various stumbles; you’re always waiting to see the next way someone can get offed, and you don’t mind waiting through some numbing dialogue or weird performances to get there.
As has already been much-discussed and pretty much meme’d to death, the central plot device of Old is a beach that makes you, well, old. As a sequence of families descend upon a private waterfront during their pricey island vacation, they find that time has been knocked askew, the children aging into teenagers and long-term illnesses accelerating terrifyingly fast, all while a mysterious forcefield prevents any and all escape attempts. Our anchor is the Cappa family, led by mum Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and dad Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), a couple on the brink of collapse trying to give their young kids one last holiday to remember.
Shyamalan’s writing has always lived on the edges of actually sounding human, and the world of Old – adapted from the graphic novel Sandcastle – fits his trademark otherworldly style better than any of his movies since The Village. You find yourself enjoying the thudding foreshadowing and stilted dialogue – even if some of the actors don’t quite manage the tone as well as others – and there is the occasional genuine masterstroke, like the inclusion of a rapper named, unimprovably, Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre).
Though the rules of the beach are established pretty cleanly – essentially, each half hour is worth a year of aging – they stop being particularly consistent once the Cappa kids have been aged up enough to start contributing directly to the plot. Played at this point by Alex Wolff as eccentric son Trent and Thomasin McKenzie as protective older sister Maddox, they seem to stop aging whenever is convenient, though Wolff and McKenzie both do decent lines in the existential dread of suddenly inhabiting a new body.
Other characters face more direct horrors, calcium deficiencies eventually resembling the Boneitis disease from that one episode of Futurama or degenerative schizophrenia turning its sufferer into a crazed killing machine (one of the Shyamalan’s more unfortunate choices), though Old only actually enters ‘horror’ territory once. The transformations are effectively grisly, though some of them, like a rapid pregnancy experienced by the technically four-years-old Kara (Eliza Scanlen), don’t bear thinking about too much.
For most of Old’s runtime, the peaks outnumber the valleys, Shyamalan chucking a bunch of interesting ideas at the screen to the point where even the ones that don’t really work make for engaging failures, but he comes unstuck at the ending. Old has a pretty unstickable landing, to be fair, but the resolution is dull and over-explained, and actually feels lifted almost beat-for-beat from the ending of Shyamalan’s last feature, Glass, a disappointment from such an imaginative filmmaker.
Old is Shyamalan at his Shyamalan-iest, exciting and indulgent in equal measure, and even if it doesn’t always hang together, it’s still a thrill to have a director willing and able to be this weird within the studio system. If you can click into its unique and sometimes even uncomfortable rhythms, it’s a trip worth taking.