Old: M Night Shyamalan’s time-compressing mystery overstays its welcome

Another chapter in the Sixth Sense director’s peculiarly underwhelming career

Vicky Krieps as Prisca and Thomasin McKenzie as Maddox in M Night Shyamalan’s Old

Film Title: Old

Director: M Night Shyamalan

Starring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 108 min

Fri, Jul 23, 2021, 05:00

   

M Night Shyamalan has been in an odd place for the last 20 years or so. The spectacular success of The Sixth Sense, his second film, triggered suggestions that we might be looking at the new somebody-or-other for the incoming century. Then again, that film didn’t really feel like the work of anyone else. The weaving of emotional catharsis with neo-Victorian spiritualism promised years of spooky blockbusters that were all his own.

Even Shyamalan’s greatest fans would have trouble arguing that this is how things have worked out. There have been big hits. There have been effective entertainments. There have been artistic and financial catastrophes such as the notorious (and not uninteresting) Lady in the Water. Cahiers du Cinéma, perennially awkward about US cinema, included that last film, The Village and Split in its top 10 lists for the relevant years. But the general sense has been of a man constantly clawing his way back to a briefly attained peak.

Shyamalan’s latest balmy-season shocker is unlikely to complete that ascent. Indeed, writing behind the shelter of a particularly strict embargo, I sense the world’s critics sharpening their blades for yet another, more-than-usually ruthless MNS evisceration. Based on Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters’s graphic novel Sandcastle, Old is as silly as any recent release without the words “Space Jam” in its title. But things are being said about the cruelty of time that are worth heeding. It doesn’t justify its running time. But it has enough fun with the high concept to keep even the most easily distracted viewer on board.

This is the sort of twisty picture that puts the Spoiler Police on the highest alert. The central concept is, however, sufficiently front-and-forward in publicity material — and unfolds sufficiently early — that we can surely lay most of it before you.

Old - official trailer

We begin with an array of largely rich oddballs arriving at a far-off resort for a tropical holiday. It’s the sort of place where they hand you a signature cocktail before you have had time to remove your sunhat. We are particularly focused on an apparently happy, and certainly pulchritudinous, family headed by dad Gael García Bernal and mum Vicky Krieps. Rufus Sewell plays an arrogant doctor; Abbey Lee is his much younger wife. Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird play a more generously minded couple. Their various children are, perhaps, in for the biggest shock of all.

Early on they are taken to a remote beach and, before they have even had time to discover that — yes, you’ve guessed it, horror fans — there is no mobile phone reception, the weirdest phenomena are testing their sanity. Eventually, after much furrowing, they accept that time is passing insanely quickly. On this beach an entire life can pass in a day. Children go missing for half an hour and return as adolescents. Diseases progress at lunatic pace.

Some perfunctory explanation is offered as to why the young folks immediately grow up whereas parents don’t turn into crones quite so quickly. The barriers to escape seem vague. Don’t try to make sense of the rules. Just slip into the games being played with the genuinely eerie premise. When the doctor attempts an operation, the wound heals up almost before the blade has left the flesh. The changes that afflict the children – and one in particular – demonstrate macabre invention on a grand scale. A strong cast makes something of thinly drawn characters.

Yet Old does not live up to its bonkers potential. After a rollicking opening hour, the story plumps itself down and kills time on its way to an explanation that was never going to satisfy. For all the mad adventure, it feels like a Twilight Zone episode stretched out thinly to feature length. 

Fun and diverting, nonetheless. A unique career lumbers on.

On cinema release from July 23rd