Unlike the countless bodies breaking on its central beach, Old has good bones.
Adapted from the French graphic novel Sandcastle, this psychological thriller opens by establishing its uniquely intriguing premise: a group of people is taken to a secret beach only to discover they’re aging rapidly.
But after establishing these supernaturally tinged stakes, veteran writer-director M. Night Shyamalan struggles to reach any peak with his storytelling. That’s especially the case because, surprisingly, Old doesn’t lean on the same kind of game-changing twist that’s defined much of Shyamalan’s best work.
Still, Old puts its actors through a gauntlet as they portray characters who rapidly age through vast spans of their lives — even if it doesn’t always make sense.
“Dealing with the concept of time becoming quicker all of a sudden, it’s really difficult to find the logic,” star Gael García Bernal told Inverse in a recent interview. “We had to grab onto whatever we instinctively felt could happen and then try it out.”
Old follows Guy (Bernal), his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and their two kids, Trent (Alex Wolff) and Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie), all traveling for a tropical vacation. An actuary by trade, Guy is the kind of father who warns his kids about the dangers of coffee table injuries.
Guy, Prisca, Trent, and Maddox eventually end up on a scenic beach with another vacationing family: doctor Charles (Rufus Sewell), his young wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their daughter Kara (Eliza Scanlen), and his mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). This second family essentially serves as a sounding board for the main characters, allowing audiences to witness the darkness of this time-compressed beach sooner than later. The two families are eventually joined by three other individuals, emerging as a strong ensemble.
The world of Old is so ridiculous and surreal that it warrants characters built to match. But the performances delivered by these actors are so roundly nuanced and subtle that they belong in a different movie altogether. Old’s downfall is in how this talented ensemble snags on its catchy, high-concept hook.
This disparity between tone and performance is all the more jarring for those familiar with the original graphic novel by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, which Shyamalan says he was inspired to adapt as a screenplay after receiving it as a Father’s Day present from his daughter.
Bernal personally stayed away from the graphic novel until filming had wrapped.
“When you’re building a world, and you’re part of that universe, you don’t want to be dominated by another interpretation of it,” he says.
It’s a fair point and a practice adopted by many actors in the same position. But based on the tonal friction between Old’s actors and the story, it’s clear Shyamalan’s script captured little of the goofiness that Sandcastle leans into on the page. The stylized nature of that graphic novel heightens the emotion of its story. Old, in comparison, feels slightly afraid to embrace its own ridiculousness.
The exhilarating moments Shyamalan orchestrates here come when the cast devolves into cartoons: one character’s bones break and heal quickly in the wrong position; another becomes pregnant and gives birth in a matter of minutes.
The premise feels ready-made to explore ideas of aging, death, disability, and even interpersonal and race relations. But it’s unclear if the film is trying to be a Get Out-style allegorical thriller that meditates on how we waste our lives and our short time on Earth. Is Shyamalan trying to say something profound? Or did he just want to make a supernatural sci-fi movie about a group of people trying to escape an otherworldly environment?
Old may not resonate with some viewers. Absurd moments are sprinkled throughout to clarify that this is a supernatural story, but they’re not featured prominently enough to justify that element of the script.
For fans of M. Night Shyamalan, expect something closer to The Village than The Sixth Sense. While there’s one plot twist, it doesn’t feel isn’t as seismic as his other bombshell endings. Instead, the film’s lingering questions, asked ad nauseam throughout the first two acts, are merely answered rather than expanded into something fantastical.
“He’s trying another tonality, another musical scale,” Bernal told Inverse recently of how Old differs from the rest of Shyamalan’s filmography.
After seeing the film, I felt Shyamalan might be running into a slight learning curve in his attempt at something new. It’s worth noting the filmmaker is literally out of his comfort zone, as this is the first Shyamalan movie not to film any scenes in Philadelphia.
Though the film has obstacles executing its ideas, Old does occasionally shine. (In other words, this isn’t the career-low Shyamalan of The Last Airbender.) Its story retains the same supernatural-crisis element this filmmaker has so capably exploited in films like The Happening. One only wishes Old was less distracted by its ensemble family drama and more focused on doing justice to the mystery at hand.
Old premieres in theaters July 23.