'Old' Review: At least the scenery is pretty

M. Night Shyamalan’s 'Old' traps vacationers on a beach where time moves at an alarmingly speedy rate.

Time moves on in 'Old.'
(Image: © Universal)

What to Watch Verdict

'Old' tries a high-concept approach at fearing life's finality but strands itself without a life vest thanks to lackluster performances and a vision that's enamored with its themes but forgets execution matters more.


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    ⌛ Beaches are pretty.

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    ⌛ Death is scary.


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    ⌛ The movie never ends.

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    ⌛ Woefully paced.

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    ⌛ A rudderless narrative.

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    ⌛ Feels like no one is in control.

To describe M. Night Shyamalan’s Old in a single word? Adrift. I’ve never read Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters’ graphic novel Sandcastles but can only presume their source material doesn’t struggle so mightily to sustain needed coherency. Even further, there’s an unpleasantness to Shyamalan’s indulgence of six-feet-under fears that require no metaphor detector alarms. Time keeps on slipping, especially when you’re picnicking where you’ll age a lifetime in barely twenty-four hours—mortality is fleeting, minutes are precious, and humans are wasteful. It’s the same existential crisis I wrestle every few nights before bedtime, except Shyamalan wraps this breakdown around an experience that is a malformed narrative mishmash.

Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) whisk their children Trent and Maddox to an exotic paradise destination for one last family vacation without complications. The resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) directs all four to a private beach with unique stone formations said to be a must-see experience. The family arrives with another party—chief medical practitioner Charles (Rufus Sewell), his vapid wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), daughter Kara, and elder Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant)—only to find the sandy escape holds an impossible secret. No one can leave, and they’re all aging rapidly on account of adolescents Trent (Alex Wolff), Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie), and Kara (Eliza Scanlen) entering their teens in a matter of hours.

It's an enticing sci-fi concept that benefits Shyamalan’s signature implementation of gotcha stingers. Old fits Shyamalan's catalog like Chrystal into another glamour-fashion swimsuit, and yet it never feels like the Unbreakable filmmaker has any control over the conflict’s situational implausibility. It’s scary, it’s sweet, it’s silly, it’s bonkers, but never in even handfuls. Instead, Shyamalan seems smitten by thematic ideology yet unsure about execution, as we’re reminded over and over again how unfortunate our aged march towards death becomes once hearing fades, vision blurs, and so forth.

Cinematography provides a glimmer of hope as director of photography Mike Gioulakis posterizes the Dominican Republic’s environmental beauty. I’d venture to label Old a contained thriller in the way victims are trapped within cliffside and aquatic boundaries, which Gioulakis broadens through visual trickery. One scene where Charles attacks Guy (we’ll get there) uses midnight darkness and only a campfire to replicate “monsters from the shadows” horror like Pitch Black. In contrast, daytime brightness uses ample space to separate characters and enhance isolation. It’s cleanly edited and meticulously framed to ensure we don’t notice actor swaps for children until Shyamalan deems the grandest impact—his instincts are sharp, at least in these choices. 

Old loses its composure to performances that attempt maximum disorientation but clash or become narrative tools without more profound thought. There’s a reason why Guy and his ailing wife or late additions nurse Jarini (Ken Leung) and his epileptic partner Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) have been steered towards this anomalistic landmark. As Shyamalan’s proclivity dictates, events occur at random to keep the distrust and uncertainty palpable as Charles starts swiping knife blades in the direction of other beachgoers because what’s a survival story without everyone following their selfish or hidden interests? Unfortunately, it’s more akin to Shyamalan throwing character names into a randomizer to see what occurs next—and whatever happens, musician Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) is going to exclaim, “Damn.”

There are gripping moments where Old achieves potential, one such adrenaline spike relating to Kara’s baby bump seen in the trailer. Guy never sits Trent down for the birds and the bees, and his sexual activity from a childlike curiosity comes with immediate repercussions. I also save a spot in my heart for the tenderness between Guy and Prisca. They ride their emotions from a broken marital bond into the overwhelming importance of togetherness that comes with wrinkles and hearing aids. It’s all the other additives that bog down what should be hallmark narrative milestones, like the vain Instagram hottie facing her haggard final form or Charles' obsession with movie trivia as his mental instability leaks outward. Shyamalan flows too many undercurrents from racial unrest as Charles asserts prejudice towards Mid-Sized Sedan or spotted cameras recording from ridgelines or the ending—that goshdarn “Ah-Ha!” moment which could erase the previous ninety-plus minutes thanks to an out-of-character oversight—that never find one fluid stream.

I want to say Old is quintessential M. Night Shyamalan, but it’s far less composed despite sporting all the inclusive bells and whistles of island vacation cinema. The script’s structure feels like waves lapping atop the audience, pulling back to sea over and over without any time for the film even to address what just happened—that includes mangled bodies, homicide, and Big Brother implications. Old is never better than when adolescent characters acknowledge their robbed memories, zipping past maturity, proms, and all the enjoyable aspects of life before adulthood crushes your dreams. Old is never worse than an otherwise talented cast stumbling around an empty beach talking themselves in nonsense circles while the sands of time pour with haste. Buckle in for way more of the latter and a whole lot of glancing at your watches.

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.