2 ½ stars out of 4
I’ve always argued that the TV show “Lost” was built on a combination of suspenseful storytelling and great characterization, and its failure to resolve the former was at least tempered by its success with the latter. Sad to say, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old” feels like the movie version of “Lost,” minus the great characterization.
Set on a mysterious beach adjoining a tropical island resort, “Old” follows the horror-suspense-twist formula of Shyamalan’s early career as a trio of troubled families find themselves trapped in a bizarre research experiment.
Each family has its assorted emotional and medical issues. Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are on the verge of separation, and haven’t told their kids that Prisca has just discovered a tumor. Charles (Rufus Sewell) is a proud doctor exhibiting the first of some troubling mental illness symptoms, and is accompanied by his vain trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their daughter Kara (Mikaya Fisher), and matriarch Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is suffering from regular seizures, but fortunately her husband Jarin (Ken Leung) is a nurse.
One by one, resort management recruits each family for an exclusive day trip to the secret beach, which is surrounded by curious rock cliffs and is only accessible through a narrow slot canyon. The beach is empty save for a solitary man who turns out to be a famous rapper (Aaron Pierre), but no one pays him any mind until a dead body washes up on shore a couple of hours after they arrive.
While everyone is attending to the body, things really get strange, as Guy and Prisca realize that in the time they’ve been on the beach, their children (now played by Thomasin McKenzie and Alex Wolff) have somehow aged by four years. Slow dread turns to chaos as Agnes dies of a sudden heart attack, and as one weird event gives way to another, eventually the vacationers realize that their secret beach is somehow accelerating time.
As a set-up, “Old” does a great job of building suspense and tone, and fans of Shyamalan’s work will enjoy his signature foreboding and quirky style. Sewell and Krieps provide strong performances, and there’s quite a bit of creative cinematography and camera work, such as a shot framed through the exposed ribs of the aforementioned dead body. There’s a wealth of weirdness here—maybe too much for some audiences—and even though the audience knows early on that the vacationers being observed from afar (even they can tell they’re being watched), it isn’t entirely obvious where things are going.
At times, the plot feels like an island version of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” and the Guy-Prisca dynamic offers some touching commentary on aging and wisdom. Unfortunately, some clunky expository dialogue hampers the film’s natural flow, and worse, after all the build up, the big third act reveal feels more like a shrug than a revelation. Logical but unsatisfying, and potentially offensive depending on your feelings about subjects like mental illness, “Old’s” finale fails to stick the landing, and in a genre like this, that’s all that really matters.
It’s been nice to see Shyamalan get back to his roots in recent years—2015’s “The Visit” in particular felt like a return to former form after missteps like 2013’s “After Earth”—but “Old” feels like a collection of interesting parts that fail to add up to a satisfying payoff.
Kind of like “Lost.”
Though rated PG-13, “Old” contains enough intense violence and suggestive partial nudity to justify a warning to sensitive viewers. It’s clear that the filmmakers wanted to avoid the R-rating, but the film is knocking pretty hard on that door.