Shyamalan’s ‘Old’ Is Best As A B-Movie Thriller (Movie Review)

Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is back with Old, an adaptation of a 2010 Swiss graphic novel, Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. The last time the auteur adapted another’s produced work was eleven years ago. That film was the critical and commercial flop, The Last Airbender, based on Nickelodeon’s iconic animated series. Still, the film’s premise: a group of tourists get stuck on a remote section of an island and begin aging rapidly, definitely intrigued me. Old might be sourced a graphic novel, but the 108 minutes I experienced are very much in the Shyamalan wheelhouse. The question is whether this is good like The Sixth Sense or, well, Glass

After a decade of strong genre pictures that saw both critical and financial success by studios like A24, “elevated horror” was a term I had heard from a few podcasts and film groups. Personally, I find the term insulting to the decades of effective meat and potatoes movies I treasure, like Carpenter’s The Thing, Cronenberg’s The Fly, or Cameron’s sci-fi meets slasher The Terminator. More recent fare like It Follows or Under the Skin proudly showed off their influences from those pictures (like a Carpenter-like synth score in It Follows), but they also did something else that was catnip to many critics; yours truly included.

Subtext has always been a staple of B-movies, but suddenly, you really couldn’t appreciate these 21st-century creep fests without being fully aware of the subtext. A horror fan from the 70s might not extrapolate that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a pointed comment on the Vietnam era, but you can’t miss the gender politics on display in Under the Skin, or the anxiety of STDs in It Follows.  And hey, I LOVE those films.

Still, after a decade of arthouse B-movies, I started to hear rumblings of the “can’t a monster just be a monster?” variety. Thankfully, 2019’s Crawl slithered into theaters and delivered just that. Maybe it’s a comment on Southern Florida’s housing market, but I came for the killer alligators. Finally, we’re back to enjoying genre for the pure entertainment of it all.

I’d place Old somewhere in the middle of this conversation. The film is most engaging when it doesn’t try to make you think too hard on any of the “what does this all mean?” poppycock. As nine well-to-do vacationers start aging quickly to varying degrees (based on the age they were when they arrived), my mind raced to what inventive ways Shyamalan could put his able cast through? Do I want to see Dark City‘s now middle-aged actor Rufus Sewell go mad as a doctor who keeps asking everyone, “What the name was of that film that starred Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando?” Heck yeah, I do! (Not for nothing, the film was The Missouri Breaks.) Or how about a scene where that same madman performs surgery on this Twilight Zone-esque beach, but, because of the fast aging, the incision he makes on his patient’s stomach keeps closing up. More of that, for sure!

Along with Sewell, Shyamalan has assembled a terrific cast that includes Gael García Bernal and Phantom Thread‘s Vicky Krieps as parents of two kids that will soon be played as older versions by Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit). Abby Lee (The Neon Demon) and Ken Leung (Lost) are stranded, too, with their own challenges to aging fifty years in 24 hours. The whole ensemble works when the script and direction stick to playing the outrageous premise for maximum effect.

The script, barring a few questionable last act revelations that get too literal in their message (the subtext becomes text), is Shyamalan, the writer, adapting the material and adding his own sensibilities. There’s quality downtime with the kids, a strong feeling of character isolation that comes with most of his work, and people of different classes finding themselves trapped by their bad impulses. Plus, the plot structure folds in on itself, which is very much in line with the same person who made The Sixth Sense and The Visit.

Shyamalan, the director, however, can’t quite get out of the script’s way. For example, we know that everyone ages fast if they have wandered off to a certain location. Yet too many times, these aged-up reveals are frustratingly held back. They’ll ramble on, and we’re deliberately behind them, or they’re out of focus off to the side of the frame. There’s no real reason to demonstrate this visual tricky except to stretch out a false sense of suspense. Less would be more here, even with a premise so outlandish. It’s almost like Shyamalan, the filmmaker, lacks faith in how bonkers and fun the script already is.

I’d still rank this above much of Shyamalan’s recent fare. He may never top The Sixth Sense, but maybe if he just relaxed a bit on any kind of pretensions, he’ll continue to deliver engaging B-movie thrills.


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