In M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, Old, a group of holidaymakers find themselves trapped on a beach. A dead body floats past in the sea and soon after they realise that they’re all ageing rapidly; there is some sort of frightening magic at play and in a flash, a six-year-old boy is eleven. A young woman gets pregnant and then gives birth almost straight away. Wrinkles start spreading like they are contagious and it seems that years are passing in minutes. Nobody knows what to do.
It is an interesting idea. The set-up sounds as if it might be a play – one group of characters in a single location – the type that deals with weighty themes and stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre. But, of course, it isn’t that; it’s a big, brash, shiny movie, the type that Shyamalan has been making for decades. His methods are not particularly subtle, and in the case of Old, there is an ever-present tension between quite profound ideas and questions – the effects of time and the purpose of memory – and the director’s rather cocksure style.
At times it is laughable, literally – in the cinema people fell about, not at the occasional misplaced joke, but rather because of the sheer clumsiness of it all. The dialogue is forced and obvious: one of the characters says, “Something is going on with time on this beach!”, which was more than a little self-evident by that stage. You wonder whether Shyamalan thinks that his audience is slow on the uptake or instead if he just isn’t a particularly good script-writer. Perhaps both are true.
In this film, where supernatural events shape the characters’ experiences, the words they speak are more important than ever. If we are to suspend our disbelief and “go along” with the magical element, then we have to in some sense believe in the characters and the authenticity of their reactions. I’m not sure this is ever the case with Old, and it isn’t helped by some startling overacting on the part of the ensemble cast. Almost everything is shouted.
I was reminded of Tenet, the Christopher Nolan movie from last year, an exceedingly complicated and very boring film made by a director who, I suspect, believes a little too strongly in his brilliance. Shyamalan is similarly hubristic – he has, after all, been hugely successful. Though unlike with Tenet, Old was so disappointing I found myself thinking back to the director’s earlier works and reassessing.
I’d loved The Sixth Sense and The Village as a child, his thrillers from the early 2000s; they’d frightened me and made me sad, though more than anything I loved the twist endings. It always seemed so outrageously clever to me, the way the big reveal caught you unaware. But now I wonder about those movies. What would I have made of them if I’d seen them first as an adult? Are the twist endings brilliant, or just a bit silly?
The idea for the setting of Old – based on a graphic novel by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters – is interesting and different, and had it been directed by someone with a more mature style, someone inclined towards subtlety, who trusts the viewer to think for themselves, then it might just have worked.
Having criticised Shyamalan for his lack of nuance, I should say that there was something about his use of the camera that I liked. He often pans away from the speaker so that only half their face is shown, which is strangely unsettling. Were the dialogue stronger and the acting more restrained then this technique would no doubt have been impactful. You can’t quite tell where to look, long towards the horizon or at the looming cheek or forehead in the foreground.
All in all, Old is still a remarkably poor film; remarkable if, like me, you felt somewhat nostalgically about Shyamalan’s previous films, and so came to this anticipating something a little bit special. There is, I’m afraid, nothing enchanting about it. Perhaps the magic wore off long ago.