M. Night Shyamalan flies. He flies from idea to idea, from tone to tone, from one style to another, always looking for the next but never staying long enough to anchor himself in one of them. Never has this been truer than in his last film, Old.
It’s a movie tote – a bit of schlocky horror, a bit of existential terror, a bit of philosophical thinking, a little mysterious thriller, a bit of social satire. Any of them could have provided the setting for a decent movie, a movie with some stamina. But instead, it’s like a tasting menu: you can find tasty individual dishes, but they don’t constitute a complete meal.
And that’s a shame, because Shyamalan starts from a premise that kills.
Imagine a beach where everyone is aging faster than normal. Much faster. The dozen or so visitors to the beach come to understand that a single hour on the beach equals two years of normal life. And they can’t escape.
It is ripe for the exploitation of horror, as the older ones become decrepit and die, the middle-aged people get sick and whatever their illnesses, they progress much faster, and the children go through puberty to an alarming rate. The sometimes grotesque nature of the human body and, of course, the decaying flesh of the living and the dead are in the spotlight in Old, but not overwhelmingly. It is horror that has become sweet.
The metaphorical nature of the premise has the most potential. The feeling of life passing by is a common sight for just about everyone except young people. What parents didn’t feel like their kids had grown up overnight, and which seniors didn’t look back at their lives and wonder how it all happened in the blink of an eye.
In the end, the situation for beachgoers is not that different from ours. Shyamalan doesn’t go too deeply into this observation, but the characters’ awareness of what’s going on forces at least some of them to reflect on their lives quite deeply.
And in a sort of time-lapse, kids not only grow physically but emotionally, going through stages of maturity ranging from adoring their parents to disregarding them for appreciating them throughout the day. This metaphorical plan is by far the strength of the film, and if Shyamalan had anchored in this thematic bay, he might have had his strongest film since. The sixth sense.
Instead, Shyamalan rushes to other issues. Hey, what about group dynamics? Do people work together or do they go their separate ways? With a multi-ethnic group, do the growing suspicions stem from racial criteria? Are people willing to risk their lives for the good of others? Is it Sartre’s idea that hell is other people or the other way around? Again, all rich questions to explore, but Shyamalan only gives them the briefest of glances.
Other questions about the characters and the plot abound. Why is this happening and why are they there? Why do they pass out every time they try to leave the beach? Why does a character’s nose keep bleeding? Why does another periodically slice with a knife? Why is another hiding? What is this shining object on the hill? What does this kid’s coded message say?
Sadly, Shyamalan is determined to answer all of these questions and some, probably so the audience doesn’t feel robbed, I guess. But in doing so, it robs us of the power of the premise. In the now-awaited turn of Shyamalan’s final act, the mystery is indeed solved, but the power of the truly mysterious fades with the tide.
Listen to the Tom and Curley Show weekday afternoons from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to podcast here.