Review: M. Night Shyamalan's Thriller 'Old' About a Peculiar Beach
by Alex Billington
July 23, 2021
"A natural anomaly," the resort manager says at the beginning of the film. Yes, indeed it is. This is one of those lines from early on in the film that is a big wink at what's to come – not only about the film itself but with the strange beach they end up at. Old is the latest film from provocative, twisty filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, trying something new by adapting a French graphic novel called "Sandcastle" by Pierre-Oscar Lévy & Frederick Peeters. The story follows a family that visits a secluded tropical beach while on vacation, only to discover that not only are they trapped there, but everyone seems to be getting older extremely fast. It's an ambitious concept to turn into a film, not only to visualize correctly with regards to aging but to get the performances that make it all seem believable. Shyamlan does well, and the film is thrilling and chilling, but not the most impressive or satisfying creation. I enjoyed watching, but still wanted even more out of it.
Time is relative. Einstein already taught us this. But as human beings living on Earth, we rarely ever get the chance to really think about this, considering time is pretty constant for most of us living on this planet. Old takes this concept and plays around with it in an intriguing M. Night Shyamalan way. Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps co-star as a father and mother of a family with two young kids. They're already arguing when they arrive, both hoping to give themselves time to think while on vacation. The film explores the most obvious topics related to time: that we need to live more in the present, but also need to stop wasting time and burying things we don't want to deal with. Also: what do you think when you suddenly have no time left? How much do we regret not saying or doing what we should've done long ago? Along with: at what point do we start forgetting about the past and enjoy what we have now? Can we do this if we're not old yet?
Ultimately, the film's biggest flaw is that it barely scratches the surface of what's going on with time and the topics being explored by this beach's magical powers to make people age extremely fast. There is, of course, a bigger message regarding corporate culture and abusive capitalism, which is an interesting idea to explore, but that's just part of the postscript. Something to go "ah, I see what you're really getting at!" But ultimately the film never really digs deep into the ideas of how he waste time and how we should both take advantage of it & enjoy it while we have it. The conversations are there, and the dialogue does express this, but there's no depth beyond that basic "huh" thought. I suppose it's because time keeps moving so fast and Shyamalan didn't want to spend too much of that time on these ruminations when there's still a story being told. When there's still somewhere he must go with this film rather than simply just – hey, getting old really fast sucks.
It's a disservice to say that this film doesn't have a twist. It does, for sure, but as with many of Shyamalan's recent films, it's an "obvious" twist or rather it's a twist we know is coming. There will be a big reveal, it will be something you might figure out early on or not, but the "twist" is part of the experience now so it's not a surprise or a shocking turn. It's expected in that we know there will be something coming, but what is going on is always what's the most interesting to find out. Is it this, or that; what's really happening here. And, of course, there's implications to the reveal. It is a magical beach that makes people old, but it's also not just a magical beach that makes people old. One of the most beautiful moments is the tumor scene, which is one of the few hopeful reminders in that film that making a "fast decision" can actually change the rest of your life. I wish Shyamalan leaned into this idea a few more times than with this one scene. It's a powerful moment.
One of the other big flaws with the film is the cinematography, shot by DP Mike Gioulakis (who also shot It Follows, Split, Under the Silver Lake, Glass, Jordan Peele's Us). There's a few peculiar, meandering shots that drift off into nowhere, focusing on the wrong things. However, there are also a number of fascinating close-up shots that are designed to be disorienting and very confusing. These shots are effective and I found them quite exhilarating. But then there's a number of other shots that are frustrating because they're so off and bewildering. I can't say the entire film looks bad, because the disorienting shots work well. And it's clear that Shyamalan's focus was to be more intimate, to bring us closer to these people on the beach. Time is more manageable when we see everything from a distance, but close up it's hard to even realize the clock is ticking. It's not so distracting that it ruins the film, but is a mix of good & bad, and occasionally bothersome.
There's plenty of throwaway lines in this film about how much we talk about "when we're older" or "all that time we wasted" or "we should've done that yesterday" or "we can do that tomorrow". These lines are as far as it goes in exploring these topics, platitudes we're all familiar with. The premise is ambitious and thought-provoking, and I appreciate Shyamalan trying to make a film about this beach. It could've benefited from an R-rating, letting us see more of the horror of these fragile, brief lives we live. This prevents it from being as shocking as it should be, the kind of shock that we often need to make us truly think deeply about how to do more with the limited time we have. Ultimately the film can be summed up by an exchange early on between the father & mother. "You are always thinking about the future, it makes me feel not seen." "You are always thinking about the past, you work in a god damn museum." So we have to stay right inbetween: the present.