It’s been almost two decades since M. Night Shyamalan was viewed as the Next Big Thing. He seems content to have left the pressure of those expectations behind, instead making a string of well-attended, low-budget thrillers that please his financiers and his relatively limited audience. His last film, Glass, was certainly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, but it’s not that much worse than Split, The Visit, After Earth, The Last Airbender or The Happening.
I usually don’t go out of my way to cite an artist’s filmography, but sometimes his early cult hits like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable still overshadow the fact that he’s had a decade of increasingly dumb movies that defy even the critical community’s lowest possible expectations for his career. How does this keep happening? And why did it take so long for him to make Old, which finally reaches a point of harebrained schlock that it actually becomes madly entertaining in an “I can’t believe this was made” way up until the frustrating final 15 minutes?
If I had a blank check from Universal and the kind of name recognition that still sells tickets after a career of creative misfires, I’d probably make something like Old, too.
At this point, the memes have sold anyone with an internet connection on the film’s high concept. Three vacationing families find themselves trapped on a beach where time moves faster. They grow older. The Cappa family — Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), Prisca (Vicky Krieps), Trent (Emun Elliott and Alex Wolff) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton, Thomasin McKenzie and Embeth Davidtz) — are a family of four in which the children grow from 6 and 12 years old into adults before their very eyes. Charles (Rufus Sewell) is a British doctor whose wife and daughter grow older while his latent mental illness becomes more serious as his brain ages. The Carmichaels (Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird) are the third couple, with less to do. There’s also a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre).
The way Shyamalan’s central conceit changes the characters is nonsensical but also affords oodles of silly, often bad-taste fun. His dialogue is goofy. The mechanics of the aging are nebulous. Most of it is just an excuse to set up weird setpieces like a surgery where the families have to keep a wound open on a beach where injuries heal very quickly or, (in)famously, the quick pregnancy of one of the characters who has grown up from 6 to 14 in the blink of an eye. Shyamalan never explains why someone who is mentally 6 years old would start having sex with another person who is mentally 12 years old, nor does he bother examining the implications. This is an incredibly shallow thriller, but that shallowness makes it fleet, funny, and engaging.
Unfortunately, the ending is such a departure from the “what the hell is going to happen next” energy of the rest of the film and actually feels like a repeat of his Glass ending. Both boil down to uncovering a vast conspiracy and … telling on them. It’s as surface-level as the rest of the film, but that kind of superficial storytelling works fine when it’s about putting scary images on the screen. When asked to suspend disbelief as a way to wrap up the story, it feels more contrived than necessary.
There’s no way Shyamalan intended on Old becoming a laugh riot akin to Birdemic, but that’s what he ended up creating. Given that it’s actually fun to watch, this may well be his best film in a very long time.
The new disc from Universal Pictures includes several short documentaries on the film, including one about how Shyamalan’s daughter was a second-unit director on the film. It’s actually pretty heartwarming. For all my criticisms of his work, he seems like a decent guy who loves making movies, and it’s always nice to see that passed down. There are also deleted scenes.