(PG-13 / 1 hr 49m / Universal Studios)
Summary: Four sets of vacationing families find themselves trapped on a beach in which they begin to inexplicably age rapidly. Every action then becomes a race against time to make it out alive.
Verdict: Man’s eternal battle against the ebb and flow of passing time is at the heart of Old, the newest psychological thriller by writer-director M. Night Shyamalan.
Adapted from the graphic novel Sandcastle by Frederic Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy, Old tells the story of eleven people trapped in paradise on a beach at which time moves at an alarming rate.
Shyamalan assembles an impressive international cast to tell this tale. Leading the way are Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle, Y Tu Mamá También) and Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) as Guy and Priska a married couple on holiday with their six-year-old son, Trent (Nolan River) and eleven-year-old daughter, Maddox (Alexa Swinton).
Joining their family on their bonkers beachfront day trip are cardiac surgeon Charles (played flawlessly by Rufus Sewell), his trophy wife, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their six-year-old daughter, Kara (aged up to be played by Eliza Scanlen) as well as a nurse named Jarin and his psychologist wife, Patricia (Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird).
The party is rounded out by Charles’ elderly mother (Kathleen Chafant) and rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre).
The pacing of the film feels a bit like a rollercoaster, with the first twenty or so minutes attempting to set various elements up - Guy and Priska are on the verge of separating, Charles has been under a lot of stress at work - but never stopping on any of it for long enough, steadily escalating until the steep, steep drop and the unrelenting thrill ride truly begins.
And that drop occurs when a dead body washes into the lagoon and the party discovers that any attempt to leave the area results in blackouts. And if that’s not enough, age is starting to creep in.
The rapid cellular aging taking place on this beach is, at first, only noticeable in the children, when Kara, Trent, and Maddox are suddenly in the bodies of teenagers. And it is here that Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie take over as the Cappa children, basically carrying the film’s entire second act themselves, with occasional help from García and Sewell.
But one by one, the adults begin to see and feel the effects of the Creepy Time Beach themselves. Subtle visual effects are brilliantly employed to demonstrate the loss of hearing, eyesight, and even one’s physical attractiveness as the minutes tick away.
Tight shots convey well the obvious tension as fear and realization dawn on these people that they need to find a way out - and fast.
But for every moment the camera comes to rest on the most attractive member of the cast, there is another moment in which it sweeps across the landscape or rotates around the crowd of people, somewhat reminiscent of a pendulum or the motion of the hands of a clock to serve as a reminder that time is a precious and rare commodity in this place.
Unfortunately, a seemingly-inescapable beach isn’t the only problematic element at work here. The film’s dialogue often comes across as stilted, strangely timed, or out of place altogether, like Charles’ inability to recall the title of a film starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando at inopportune times, like during an emergency surgery.
And while you could argue that this repeated question clues the viewer in on the fact that Charles maybe isn’t quite playing with a full deck, it can easily be argued that his actions to the same thing without making it weird.
Oddly, dialogue also seems to lack at times when there should probably be so much more of it. Gael García is the victim here, as his character is put multiple times into situations in which he can and probably should speak words of love or comfort to his wife and children, but says nothing - likely because there were never any words for him to speak.
This does a massive disservice to the impressive emotional range García has as an actor. But for all of the dialogue that is unintentionally hilarious, there are flashes of beauty and brilliance, including and especially one line delivered by Thomasin McKenzie’s Maddox: “My thoughts have more color in them now,” she says of her sudden growth spurt mindset shift. What a lovely way to articulate the onslaught of puberty.
Clunky writing doesn’t do too much to hinder performances, with most of the cast taking turns at being exceptional, but Alex Wolff walks away the MVP, flawlessly capturing a child’s last vestiges of innocence as the world around him - and even his own body - betray that innocence. Thomasin McKenzie is only slightly behind him in this regard.
García brings a mild-mannered softness that balances out the roughness of Rufus Sewell, particularly in the third act.
The mothers of the group can’t go unnoticed as Krieps goes full Mama Bear at just the right time while Abbey Lee really sells Chrystal as a woman from whom time takes the ability not only to be the sort of mother she knows she can and should be, but also her identity as one of the Beautiful People.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an M. Night Shyamalan flick without a twist, and Old goes in for two, the second of which sort of makes the rollercoaster ride you’ve been on for the last ninety minutes feel like it has all but ground to a halt.
And not in a satisfying way, either. But if you take Old for the morality tale it could be about savoring every moment you’re given, it works, and works well.
At one point, as the group tries to figure out what the hell is going on and why, someone quips, “we were chosen for a reason.” I agree.
On the cusp of turning thirty, the irony is in no way lost on me that I’ve twice reached - and will likely continue to reach - for this Twilight Zone-esque tale about the inherent horrors of getting older.
Time is, after all, precious. And while it doesn’t come close to something like The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s latest effort is a good way to spend it.
Review by: Ashley J. Cicotte