Old washes up on the sands of time

M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural story of a beach with rapid aging properties treads an awkward line between horror and comedy, eventually getting caught in its own quicksand.

26 July 2021

By Kim Newman

Vicky Krieps as Prisca, Thomasin McKenzie as Maddox, Gael García Bernal as Guy and Luca Faustino Rodriguez as Trent (left to right) in Old
Sight and Sound

Old is in UK cinemas now.

On a remote, seemingly idyllic stretch of beach, time passes at an accelerated rate – visitors experience a fast forward effect whereby they age a year every half hour.

Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters’s graphic novel Sandcastles offers no explanation for its central Twilight Zone phenomenon, but writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has his trapped characters speculate about peculiar qualities of the surrounding rock cliffs and then confirms that their entirely uninformed theories match the conclusions of experts. He also invents a conspiracy on the part of a blandly welcoming island resort, and – as is his habit – casts himself in a significant small role as a facilitator of a bad situation in which his leading characters are trapped.

A paradox of this approach is that a film on the subject of sped-up time goes on too long. It especially stumbles over an epilogue that pays off on clues – notably the mental and physical ailments suffered by this handpicked bunch of tourists – that have been carefully planted, then also needs to get the plot moving again and resolved in a manner slightly less downbeat than the finish of the source comic.

In horror history, Old relates to a tradition of stories in which lonely stretches of nature prove hostile to human presence, as witness the beach of Long Weekend (1978), the woods of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the vine-choked temple of The Ruins (2008). Recently, The Sand (2015) played out another you-can’t-get-off-the-beach scenario, with a tentacled monster lurking under the sand.

Old (2021)

The details of the localised time anomaly of Old are fuzzy and paradoxical, recalling the Shyamalan aliens of Signs (2002) who could cross the void of interstellar space but not get through a wooden door and were repelled by glasses of water.

The primary effect is ruthlessly worked out and thought through. The adults at first notice the passing years less (there’s a wry aside about Black people wearing their years better than Caucasians) while child actors Nolan River and Alexa Swinton are replaced by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie. Cuts heal to scars within seconds, setting up a gruesome moment later on where someone learns that rapid healing of broken bones can be a curse rather than a gift. As the couple on the verge of separation at the outset, Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps have contrasting debilities – blurring vision, deafness in one ear – but also reconcile as wisdom (or desperation) comes with age.  

However, the further away from the centre of the story we get, the more makeshift the plot support. Trying to escape through the cleft that leads to the beach causes headaches, blackouts and apparent teleportation back to the sand. A get-out clause involving an underwater coral tunnel is somehow less believable than wildly fantastic material.

But Old is at least as much black comedy as horror. Initially, six-year-old Trent (River) has a habit of introducing himself to adults and asking their professions – like other wise children in Shyamalan films, he is out of sync with the world but also has a deeper understanding of its strangeness. As the crisis sets in, adults start to play out the roles of their jobs in almost hilarious fashion, with insurance analyst Guy (Bernal) spieling about the ways people die on holiday and archaeologist Prisca (Krieps) offering insight into the rate of decay of bones. Therapist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) calmly tries to get everyone to sit in a circle and talk about their feelings whenever some fresh calamity or fatality comes to pass – a rational approach that is also, under the circumstances, lunatic. Meanwhile, surgeon Charles (Rufus Sewell) is only of partial use in medical emergencies – which include a tumour removal and a difficult pregnancy – because his paranoia makes him suspect any Black or Asian person of being out to rob him, and he’s curiously distracted from any task at hand by trying to recall the title of the movie that co-starred Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando (NB: The Missouri Breaks).

Shyamalan’s more extreme films – this joins Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008) – almost invite the derision of audiences predisposed to be hostile or unengaged. He treats pulpy horror comic notions with a mix of solemnity and playfulness that makes for uncomfortable, surprising viewing, as the ground shifts under audiences even as performances can be affecting, nuanced and vivid (the relay race casting that stands out here is from Swinton to McKenzie to Embeth Davidtz) while other actors (Sewell, Amuka-Bird and Abbey Lee) are required to fully embrace hysterical caricature.

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