Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Marc Bienstock and Ashwin Rajan Director: M. Night Shyamalan Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, Aaron Pierre, Kathleen Chalfant, Alexa Swinton, Nolan River, Kylie Begley, Embeth Davidtz, Eliza Scanlen, Emun Elliott, Mikaya Fisher, Luca Faustino Rodriguez, Gustaf Hammarsten, Kailen Jude and Francesca Eastwood Distributor: Universal
One has to feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan. Ever since “The Sixth Sense,” he’s been hamstrung by his identification as the “surprise twist” guy, whose movies are going to provide a flabbergasting switcheroo at the end. Nobody could live up to such expectations every time, and in truth Shyamalan has failed to deliver more often than not—remember “The Village”?
Still, it’s not for lack of trying, as he proves with “Old.” His script, inspired by the 2010 graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, actually has a simple plot: a group of folks vacationing at a resort on an isolated island are offered the chance by the manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) to enjoy a special, exclusive area, a particularly gorgeous beach at a spectacular cove. There they begin to age rapidly, a disconcerting circumstance made all the more frightening by the fact that they’re unable to escape the place, and moreover are being watched. Fear, suspicion, violence and death quickly descend on the group.
For those who don’t know it, “Sandcastle” ends ambiguously, leaving the reader to imagine what’s behind the phenomenon. Shyamalan, however, provides a postscript that explains things very explicitly, apparently thinking that the conclusion will come as a surprise. (To be fair, the authors apparently considered an ending that would be explicit as well, but rejected the idea. Whether it was the same explanation as Shyamalan’s is unclear.) Unfortunately, the film’s close is not merely unsurprising but clunkily didactic, pandering to a conspiratorial frame of mind and a desire for “justice to be done.
The couples are Guy, an actuarial analyst (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), an archeologist, and Charles (Rufus Sewell), a doctor, and his beautiful wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee). Guy and Prisca’s children are pretty eleven-year old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and precocious six-year old Trent (Nolan River). Charles and Chrystal have a six-year old daughter, Kara (Kyle Bailey), and are accompanied by Charles’ mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant).
Driven to the lonely “Nature Preserve” by a resort driver (Shyamalan himself, doing his Hitchcock cameo), the two families must trudge to the beach through along rock corridor. There they encounter another guest, Kevin (Aaron Pierre), a rapper known as Mid-Sized Sedan, sitting disconsolately by the cliffs. A third couple will soon arrive, a nurse named Jarin (Ken Leung) and his psychologist wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird).
But though the place is scenically lovely, strangeness soon sets in. The body of a woman floats into an inlet. There is no cell phone service on the beach, and when anyone tries to go back through the corridor, he blacks out and stumbles back to the shore. More curiously, everyone begins to experience rapid aging. Though the adults do so almost imperceptibly, save for some graying of hair and wrinkles, the children change astronomically. Maddox is played at sixteen by Thomasin McKenzie and as an adult by Embeth Davidtz, and Trent at eleven by Luca Faustino Rodriguez, at fifteen by Alex Wolff and as an adult by Emun Elliott. Kara at eleven is played by Mikaya Fisher and by Eliza Scanlen at fifteen.
Of course, there are losses along the way, some by natural causes and others by violence, accidental or deliberate. Medical problems, among them tumors and epilepsy, make appearances. Domestic difficulties among partners are discussed. One person retreats into solitude, unable to deal with her changed appearance, and another grows increasingly berserk. A romance develops between two of the youngsters, resulting in a pregnancy.
But all of this happens in abrupt episodes, not unlike the spring-forward-a-year device of the recent romantic comedy “Long Story Short.” Within the scope of a feature, it’s impossible for Shyamalan to portray gradual changes over time, and the result is that the film feels like a highlights reel in which the characters never really come to convincing life. (The stilted, often affected dialogue is no help.) The old series “Lost,” with its similar “Twilight Zone”-ish premise, was more successful simply because it extended over multiple episodes and seasons.
Under the circumstances, the cast do what they can with the sketchily delineated characters and limited scope for development; Sewell, in particular, suffers, particularly because Shyamalan saddles him with a misguided bit of business involving “The Missouri Breaks.” The film looks great, thanks to the attractive location embraced by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and Naaman Marshall’s elegant production design, along with Shyamalan’s facility in choreographing compositions and camera moves for optimal effect. And though Brett M. Reed’s editing can’t entirely disguise the choppiness of the narrative (or salvage the ending), he does his best. Trevor Gureckis’ score adds to the unsettling mood, though sparingly.
But while the characters in the movie may age rapidly over the course of a single day, it’s really Shyamalan’s tricks that have gotten old over time.