IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 108 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Four groups of people are on holiday in a tropical resort. On the advice of the resort’s manager, they all wind up on a bus going to a secluded beach which he’s highly recommended to them. However, instead of a really relaxing time, they quickly find themselves in a nightmare. One of their number is found dead, another suddenly dies, another has moments of psychosis, three black out inside a cave and wake up back on the beach – and the three young children become teenagers. It seems that that the beach is somehow aging people very quickly….
It’s a totally unplanned coincidence that I only thought of whilst walking towards the cinema – I’m watching a film about folk aging very quickly on the day before it’s my birthday and I reach a notable milestone which I’m not particularly happy about to the point of it almost consuming my mind . Should I really be doing this? Well of course me being me I went and saw the thing anyway, and I was more dominated by the thought that aging is one of the greatest fears that many of us have but isn’t mentioned or thought of [perhaps it’s so obvious] nearly as often as, say, spiders despite the horror genre often playing on it. And now we have M. Night Shyamalan’s new film joining the likes of Bubba Ho-tep and Relic, though for much of the time it more resembles an extension of the archetypal scene where somebody suddenly gets really old in a few seconds, a staple of pulp fantasy since the days of She and Lost Horizon, it usually happening to somebody who arrogantly thought they could stay young eternally. Whether this film is actually good I honestly can’t entirely decide upon. His low budget found footage effort The Visit showed a revitalised Shyamalan after a few films that made many wonder if the old Shyamalan had gone for good, then he then triumphantly finished a trilogy he’d began with Unbreakable with Split and Glass. One would logically expect Old to continue this run of quality, but instead it seems to alternate between the best of Shyamalan and the worst of Shyamalan, though it has that peculiarly eccentric and rather likable conviction that even inhabits the likes of After Earth and The Happening even though they don’t work at all. One rarely comes out of a film of his actively hating it; his failures remain interesting.
Old, based on a graphic novel by Frederick Peeters and Pierre-Oscar Levy though with a bit of a Lost vibe, is a partial return to the area of The Visit in that, while it’s not found footage, it’s mostly a small scale affair, 90% of it being set on an island with a rapidly depleting set of characters. Shyamalan seems to have felt that he had to make up for the fact that his film is mostly about a few people talking and totally bizarre things happening to them by asking Mike Gioulakis, who’s proven himself to be a truly first class cinematographer on material like It Follows and Under The Silver Lake, not to mention doing the same duties on Shyamalan’s last two, to shoot the film in as stylishly – one could even say in your face – a way as possible, with the camera rarely keeping still and especially doing lots of circular pans around groups of characters, a device that eventually gets rather tiresome. There are also a lot of POV shots, deliberately out of focus shots, and scenes filmed in an odd way such as an important emotional scene between two characters happening while their backs are turned to us. Never has Shyamalan seemed so enthused by the joy of filmmaking, his work here feels that that of a young director just starting out, needing to show off and relishing the relative freedom that he’s been given. And this may be just as well, because the performances range from very good to curiously awkward while the dialogue often shows up Shyamalan’s weakness in this area more than in any other picture he’d done, with lots of fake ‘deep’ lines or empty strings of words that seem unnatural especially given the situation the characters are in, fail to have real meaning or don’t contribute to either plot or character. And, while the premise was clearly meaningful to Shyamalan going by things that he’s said, it hasn’t been properly thought through judging by all the goofs and plot holes, though these may have been in the graphic novel too.
The first two characters that we meet are rapper Mid-Size Sedan and an unnamed girlfriend; they’re already on the island but the girl has gone missing. Now let’s briefly jump ahead here because we already have a plot problem. We later learn that anybody who’s at the beach ages very quickly, yet he’s the same age when everybody else arrives as he is in the opening scene. Anyway, we relocate to a nice resort [we’re never actually told where it is] and Guy and Prisca Cappa and their young children Trent and Maddox. The manager’s little boy gives Trent some kind of puzzle to solve. Do we think that this will be important later? Could it be even the key to something? I don’t think I’m giving anything away because the foreshadowing is so bleeding obvious. The family speak vaguely of the passage of time in a way that parents often do with their children, as mother says how she can’t wait to hear her daughter’s singing voice when she grows up. This seems to set up expectations that this film is going to have some profound stuff concerning such matters, though these expectations are only occasionally fulfilled. The Cappas get the impression that only they are going to this beach which doesn’t get crowds of tourists, but find others on the bus with them; a doctor named Charles, his wife Chrystal, his mother Agnes and his daughter Kara; plus Jarin and Patricia. The driver of the bus is none other than Shyamalan himself, the director taking his cast to the main stage. And what a stage it is. The cove, with its rock pools and sandy shore, surrounded by densely vegetated cliffs, would seem truly idyllic if the camera didn’t seem to emphasise the jagged nature of the rocky side of the cliffs, immediately telling us that this place is sinister. Like when Roger Corman, in answer to producer James H. Nicholson’s worry about there being no monster in The Fall Of The House Of Usher, told him “the house is the monster”, this unnamed locale [actually in the Dominican Republic] soon proves to be a very deadly beast indeed.
Tragedy first strikes when the body of Mid-Size Sedan’s companion is discovered in a very effectively staged scene with her body [not decomposed like it probably should be] floating towards Maddox from behind as she paddles in the water and doesn’t notice until it she turns. Then Agnes suddenly dies. Both incidents cause Mid-Size Sedan’s nose to bleed. Charles begins to have passages when he turns nasty, immediately accusing Mid-Size Sedan of killing his girlfriend which introduces a theme of racial prejudice which Shyamalan holds back on following through, probably because of the American PG-13 rating which seems to seriously rein him in at times. Efforts to leave result in the members of the group blacking out and waking up back on the beach. Cuts heal in a few seconds. And most bizarrely of all, Trent, Maddox and Kara all suddenly age a fair few years. It seems that the beach is rapidly aging them by a year every half an hour, resulting in their health deteriorating. They also notice that at least one member of each family has an underlying medical condition, this being a primary reason to go on this holiday. All this is suitably mysterious and creepy, with Shyamalan’s odd staging and shooting mostly adding to the unease though sometimes drawing attention to itself. For example, Mid-Size Sedan’s first interaction with the others has him just stand there for ages looking menacing, the stereotypical menacing African-American gangsta. And the chat really is often clunky, with many of the cast seemingly unsure quite how to play it; slight send up or deadly serious.
Amid everyone struggling to find a way off the beach, Trent and Maddox discover the notebook of a previous traveler, along with what seems to be another human being in the very distance. The pacing gets increasingly frantic and we get a lot of scenes that remind us how good at intense, scary horror this director is. An encounter in a cave between Trent and Maddox and another group member who’s gone off the rails is truly edgy even though said group member isn’t actually trying to kill them. One major sequence of violence is heightened by having some out of focus – and I’m talking really out of focus here – shots being plonked in there, because they’re from the point of view of a character who’s sight impaired, though elsewhere similar shots just seem to be there because Shyamalan was trying to make up for the fact that he’s limited by how graphic he can be. He’s not even able to show us a decomposed body, though we do see some of a pretty unbelievable operation. But a cliff climb manages to be genuinely nerve-wracking; here, the frenzied camerawork really helps in selling the danger of the situation, especially as by then we’ve already seen characters meet their maker in quite quick succession. And eventually – yes – we do get a twist, which takes Old much closer to another Shyamalan film; I’m not going to say what it is, but it’s one of my favourites. It gives us some answers and adds a moral, ethical aspect which is very pertinent today and which may have you debating what side is right, though a lot of mystery concerning the cove is retained, probably a sensible choice – though those who like their bleak endings [I plead guilty] will be disappointed by the way things appear to be concluding in a really grim fashion before we get a happier and in some aspects rather pat finale.
So what are some of the goofy things? Trent grows too large for his trunks and covers himself with a towel, but the other two kids either have their clothing growing with them or have clothes ready and waiting which fit them perfectly. Wounds can heal in the blink of an eye, but not all of them it seems. We’re told that hair and nails don’t grow since these consist of dead material, yet Trent develops normal body hair. A rusty knife can cause death, but unwashed hands removing a rumour cause no problems at all. Some minor rewriting could have solved these and other issues, but it seems like Shyamalan just dashed off his screenplay quickly and then filmed it immediately. The acting is very mixed; for every strong scene performed by Vicky Krieps, we get one acted poorly by Rufus Sewell. Abbey Lee is agonisingly effective in the admittedly cliched character of a woman obsessed with looking good who has to face the fact that she’s not looking much good at all; rather than aging as gracefully as possible and seeing the particular form of beauty that can come with old age, she piles makeup on and just looks grotesque even before she indulges in some body horror that the certificate mutes a bit too much; oh why couldn’t they have gone for an ‘R’ rating?! But many of the other characters don’t seem to react naturally to what’s going on around them. The central theme is, of course; if you knew you were soon to die, what would you wish to change about the way you lived your life? Not much is made of is, but then this is a film where the deep and the ‘fun’ elements seem to be in constant warfare with not enough room for either to properly flourish. There’s one beautiful, moving scene near the end where a dying couple make their peace with each other; dialogue is brief and to the point but is allowed to speak volumes. I did enjoy some of Old, despite [maybe even because of] many of its eccentricities – but that scene hints at the deeper, more profound film that could have been. Shyamalan is 50. Maybe in a couple of decades he’ll make that film.