M. Night Shyamalan movies exist on a scale, with taut thrillers like The Sixth Sense, Split, and The Visit at one end, and the nearly unwatchable Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender at the other. The prolific director has a reputation for making movies at one extreme or the other, but the reality is that just as many fall somewhere in the middle of that scale. Films like The Village and Signs have a mix of good and bad, and aren't so easy to categorize within the director's filmography. Shyamalan's latest, Old, falls squarely in the same territory.
The premise is simple but intriguing: A group of vacationing people become stranded on a beach where they rapidly age. This becomes apparent first with the young children, who grow into teenagers within a few hours of arriving. The adults catch on to their own aging more slowly, as the signs of their transformations aren't as obvious. None of them know why this is happening, and all their attempts to escape the beach seem to only make the situation worse.
Old explores this scenario exceptionally well and entirely. It delivers exactly what audiences should expect and want from the premise. As the kids grow up (each character portrayed by multiple sets of actors) they continue to act like children, but in teenagers' and, later, adults' bodies. They're overwhelmed by hormones, but although they sense their bodies and minds expanding, they lack the worldly experience to process what's happening. Most of the actual adults, meanwhile, seem to suffer from some medical malady or another, complicating things further when one woman's calcium deficiency is multiplied by the "years" she's spent on the beach, or when another man quickly succumbs to some sort of paranoid dementia.
The film is based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, but Shyamalan has sole writing and directing credit. The filmmaker takes the simple concept to some truly dark places, and even explores some body horror beyond the natural terror of the aging process being exponentially sped up. This isn't just about people losing their hearing or their eyesight over the course of a single day--although that happens too--as it explores down multiple unexpected dark paths.
Actors including Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Alex Wolff, Abbey Lee, Ken Leung, Eliza Scanlen, and many others do a fantastic job capturing these characters at different points in their "lives." The makeup and effects used to age the adult actors is good enough that it's only occasionally distracting. The script itself is unfortunately full of dialogue that's far too cute--even before the shenanigans begin, lines about living in the moment, appreciating the time you have, and aging in general abound. But the characters attempt to deal with the situation in logical ways, particularly early on, before things really start to fall apart--which is more than you can say for many gimmicky thrillers.
Where Old really starts to grate beyond mere distraction is in its cinematography. The beach itself is gorgeous, and even appropriately alien-seeming, surrounded on all sides by massive cliffs of an unknown mineral. But Shyamalan's strange directing is often so befuddling that anything else is difficult to appreciate. There's frequent and seemingly random use of shaky-cam style filming, with the camera zooming and twirling around the beach, to dizzying and incongruous effect. The movie is filled with cinematic flourishes like long shots and random panning that feel artistic in intent, but miss the mark in practice.
And of course, there's the ol' Shyamalan twist, which audiences long ago learned to expect from the director. Not all your questions about the beach will be answered, but the script does a decent enough job wrapping everything up in the end, even if the resolution isn't exactly hard to see coming. Shyamalan often struggles to find the balance between leaving a trail of clues for his twists that reward multiple viewings and outright telegraphing them in all too obvious ways, and that struggle is evident here as well.
Nevertheless, Old is an effective thriller that fully delivers on its premise, exploring the idea of aging an entire lifetime in a single day in all the ways you'd want it to. The small horrors of getting old, normally stretched out over decades, prove terrifying indeed when condensed into a short couple of hours. Old's talented cast deliver impressive performances as they play the same characters at different points in their extremely short lives, and despite some directing and script annoyances, the movie leans further toward the good end of the spectrum of Shyamalan's films than the bad.