Aging is a popular plot device for novels and films. In Ron Howard’s Cocoon, elderly residents grow younger and stronger after bathing in pool waters created by aliens. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Brad Pitt ages in reverse, from an elderly man to a baby. And in the Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the painting fades with age while he remains young and beautiful.
With the Baby Boomers growing older, aging is very much on our minds. During the year long pandemic, where we were confided to our homes, exercising less, indulging in comfort foods, and battling depression, we may all have felt like we aged a little faster. That pales in comparison, however, to what happens to the characters in M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, Old.
Arriving at the super luxury Anamika resort, several families are looking forward to a restful time, soaking up the sun and enjoying the sea. We receive our first warning sign about this vacation when one visitor says: “Can you believe I found this online?” Upon arrival, the manager of the facility offers to transport a group to a special part of the island, where the vistas are truly incredible. They eagerly agree. The shuttle driver (Shyamalan himself) drops them off, along with huge wicker baskets containing food. (If their stay will last just a few hours, why so many provisions?) He tells them to walk through a tunnel onto the beach and to call when they want to return.
The views are truly magnificent (cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, particularly the overhead shots, do the scenery justice). And while everything on the surface seems normal, each family has secrets and many are struggling with health issues.
Guy and Prisca (Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps) are on the verge of divorce. They have planned this outing as a last family vacation to spend with their two children, son, Trent, and daughter Maddox. Prisca also has a tumor, which apparently has been diagnosed as benign, but her illness is serving as a reason for her to leave Guy to be with someone else. Charles (Rufus Sewell) is a doctor vacationing with his wife, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), and their daughter, Kara. Also along is Charles’ elderly mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Arriving late is the couple Jarin (KenLeung), and his wife, Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who suffers from epilepsy.
Already on the beach when the others arrive is a rapper, Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), whose nose won’t stop bleeding. When Charles discovers the body of a young woman, Sedan says he had just met her and she was with him on the beach only for a short time. After she swam out into the sea, she apparently drowned, and her body washed ashore. Charles, seeing the rapper’s bleeding nose, believes the woman was killed.
A possible murder puts everyone on edge. But attempts to leave are thwarted. Cell phones don’t work. And anyone who attempts walking back through the tunnel is felled by excruciating head pain.
That’s not the worst of it, however. Prisca is alarmed to see that her children seem to be aging right before her eyes. She asks Charles to examine them, but his mother appears to be dying and he won’t leave her. Soon, however, it becomes apparent to everyone that Trent, Maddox, and Kara are no longer children but adolescents, and then, quickly enough, young adults. The adults also are aging, but these changes are less visible, mostly showing up as gray hair and wrinkles.
Why is this happening? And can they find a way to leave?
Old, billed as a supernatural horror thriller, is inspired by the Swiss graphic novel, Sandcastle, by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. Shyamalan is a master of this genre, having directed The Sixth Sense (“I see dead people”) and Signs, about crop circles in cornfields. Fans, waiting for another Shyamalan blockbuster, will be disappointed. Moments in the film that should be scary become laughable.
The actors playing the children fare better than the adults. Nolan River plays Trent, age six, Luca Faustino Rodriguez, age 11, Alix Wolff, 15, and Emun, as an adult. Playing Maddox are Alexa Swinton, at 11, Thomasin McKenzie, at 16, and Embeth Davidtz as the adult. Eliza Scanlen plays the 15-year-old Kara, while Kyle Bailey portrays Kara at six and Mikaya Fisher portrays Kara at 11.
Bernal and Krieps, both wonderful actors, seem oddly matched here, whether as a devoted couple, later in the film, or as the squabbling one we first meet. Sewell (who was marvelous in the BBC’s Zen), is over the top as Charles, while Abbey Lee as his wife meets every cliché of the bored trophy wife without adding any nuance. Chalfant is, as always, the bright light, although her time on screen is too short.
While we receive explanations about what transpires on this remote island, there are many holes in what’s presented. Perhaps the graphic novel explained more, but we spent the rest of the evening trying to answer the questions we still had.
One thing we know for sure. We won’t be visiting mysterious islands any time soon.
Top photo: (from left) Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), Prisca (Vicky Krieps), Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Chrystal (Abbey Lee) in Old, written for the screen and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Photos courtesy of Universal