OldReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/23/21 10:56:21
After a period of dormancy that allowed some to think that it had gone away forever and that we would be spared from its horrors, that most terrifying of entities once again returned a few days ago to infect otherwise sensible souls in a manner that made them seem as if they had gone well and truly mad. I am, of course, speaking of The Discourse—specifically, the thing that pops up on the Internet every once in a while where some mad soul attempts to convince others that the films of M. Night Shyamalan are not only not utter gibberish but are actually—I kid you not—good. Now I am not an unreasonable person and so when The Discourse sticks to the likes of “The Sixth Sense” (a film that I didn’t much care for but which I will concede is well-made and worked for most people more than it did for me), “Unbreakable” (to my mind, the one film of his that comes closest to greatness) or “Signs” (which is undeniably spellbinding until those damned last ten minutes), I am willing to allow it. However, when the rot sets in so deeply that The Discourse turns to offering up defenses of such lunacies as “The Village,” “The Happening” or “After Earth,” that is where I have to draw the line. On the bright side, at least the discourse has not, to my knowledge, tried to make a case for the likes of “The Lady in the Water” or “The Last Airbender” as of yet—a lucky thing because such a thing would be the auteurist equivalent of a “Do Not Resuscitate” order in the minds of most sane people. Although The Discourse can be cruel and insidious in the way that it forces once-dignified people attempt to explain just how truly powerful and moving “The Village” really is, the bright side to it is that it usually only crops up when Shyamalan has a new movie coming out and tends to peter out soon after it hits theaters and moviegoers discover that they have been ripped off by his nonsense once again.To date, there has been no known cure for The Discourse but if there is one good thing to say about Shyamalan’s latest, “Old,” it is that it is so dopey in so many fundamental ways that it could quite possibly shake even long-standing victims out of their stupor at last. Shyamalan has made plenty of dumb and bewildering movies since the massive success of “The Sixth Sense” went to his head but this one could possibly be the dumbest and most bewildering of the bunch. If recent films such as “The Visit” and “Split” suggested a necessary return to basics after a string of bloated critical and commercial failures, “Old” puts him right back where he was with “The Village,” “The Lady in the Water” and “The Happening” in which the only thing more off-putting that the silliness on the screen is his evident and woefully misplaced belief that he has created something that is smart, clever and profound. In the case of his recent films, they have had an advantage in the sense that no matter how bad they were, they still improved on the memory of “The Last Airbender,” arguably one of the worst films ever perpetrated by a filmmaker considered to be good in at least some circles. Yes, “Old” is ultimately slightly better than that one but the gulf between the two titles is as slight as the one between it and “Unbreakable” is vast.
Since the film, based on the 2010 graphic novel “Sandcastles” by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters, is, like all of Shyamalan’s films, dependent on surprises and twists in the narrative, I will keep plot details to a minimum, though the trailer does give away quite a bit. As it begins, the Capa family—actuary father Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), museum curator mother Prisca (Vicky Krieps), tween daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old son Trent (Nolan River) —arrives at a tropical resort, one that resembles a cross between Fantasy Island and Westworld, for a few days of fun and sun. What the kids do not know is that their parents are on the verge of separating and this trip is meant to soften the blow before telling them. What none of them know is that this is nowhere near the biggest secret they will be facing. On the advice of the resort’s unctuous head, the Capa’s, along with a few other resort guests, are dropped off at a remote beach for a few hours of secluded fun. The bliss quickly falls apart when Trent goes out swimming and bumps into a corpse floating in the water.
After that, things start to get very strange when it seems as if Maddox, Trent and another child, Kara (Kylie Begley) , have literally aged several years in a seemingly short span of time, enough to have the actors playing them replaced with Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlen. Before long, the beachgoers—including Rufus Sewell and Abbey Lee as Kara’s parents, Charles and Chrystal, additional couple Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Asuka-Bird) and a rapper with the handle of, I kid you not, Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierrre)—figure out that they are all aging at the rate of approximately one year for every half-hour and that if they can’t figure out how to stop it, they will be dead by the next day. Alas, getting off the beach proves to be seemingly impossible and as they try to escape or at least understand what is happening to them and why the hotel would leave them there to die, their accelerated existences continue on, somehow taking in everything from death to pregnancy to discourse on the largely forgotten Marlon Brando-Jack Nicholson Western “The Missouri Breaks.”
As insane as this may all sound in the recounting, it is nothing compared to the sight of watching it all play out before your increasingly disbelieving eyes. As I have not read “Sandcastles,” I cannot say how much of the story comes directly from the graphic novel and how much of it was “improved” by Shyamalan but the aim has all the hallmarks that have made his films so painful to watch in recent years. Never a particularly subtle storyteller, Shyamalan has barely let the opening corporate logos fade from memory before having the characters indulging in hilariously on-the-nose dialogue related to the passing of time as a way of setting up the story. “You’re always thinking about the future!” “You’re always thinking about the past.”) And like most of his other films, he demonstrates an inexplicable inability to convincingly depict people simply talking or interacting with one another—all of the characters speak as if they have just been introduced to the concept of language moments before the camera began rolling, usually in indigestible hunks of exposition clearly meant to set up plot points for later on (if you introduce a rusty knife in the first act, as Chekov never quite got around to saying. . . ). Since you cannot believe that these are actually convincing human beings in the first place, it is therefor impossible to have much interest in their plight or their increasingly futile efforts to escape it—not even an actress as strong as Krieps can do much of anything with her role—though she comes the closest—and most of the other actors are simply buried under the avalanche of silliness.
While the ending of the film cannot technically be considered a twist—it doesn’t so much pull the rug out from under us as it does attempt to fill in many blanks as possible with a number of surprising last-minute revelations. I will not go into any details, of course, but this cannot possibly come as a surprise to most viewers at this point. What is surprising is the fact that any of the hundreds of people who presumably took part in the film’s production thought that they could get away with what they offer up during the conclusion here. Again, I am not familiar with the source material and therefore cannot say whether the ending comes from there or from Shyamalan’s mind. What I can say that it does not work at all—while I can sort of understand what it is attempting to do, I cannot ignore the fact that, as presented, it is dramatically ludicrous, ineptly presented and not only fails to answer a number of questions that viewers might have at that point but inspires a new bunch of them as well.While I am certain that I will not be the only person to make this observation, “Old” is one of those rare films with a title that essentially serves as its own extremely on-point review. Once again, Shyamalan has taken a potentially intriguing premise and squandered it through his increasingly mannered and dramatically unsatisfying style, one that now looks even creakier and more repetitive before in the wake of the sudden rise of Jordan Peele, whose films to date have not only far more ambitiously conceived and beautifully executed than anything he has done but they are scarier to boot. “Old” does have an undeniably effective and striking poster going for it, which suggests that while Shyamalan may have completely lost touch of how to tell a story, he clearly knows how to sell one. Trust me, if you had to choose between watching “Old” and spending the same two hours staring at that poster, you would be better off opting for the poster--at least the eventual Discourse would be more interesting.
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