M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller about a nightmare holiday on a beach where you age a year every 30 minutes is as entertainingly preposterous as I was hoping for.
You know what to expect from an M. Night Shyamalan film at this point: awkward and stilted dialogue with bizarre syntax, a cameo from the writer-director himself, unconventional camera angles and some kind of story twist near the end. What intrigued me about this movie was the simple but brutal premise that could have come straight from Star Trek: The Next Generation, where some of my favourite episodes were about the crew working their way out of some space-time anomaly.
Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps play Guy and Prisca, a married couple who go on a “last hurrah” family holiday with their six-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, who don’t know that Mum and Dad are about to divorce. When they arrive at the miraculously affordable beach resort, they’re informed that the hotel driver can take them to the secret paradise beach, revealed only to the specially selected guests.
(You know you’re watching an M. Night Shyamalan film when, in the very first scene, a six-year-old child sizes up his mother and says, “The spontaneity has been stripped from her.” Every character in this movie sounds as if they were abducted by aliens.)
Anyway, Guy and Prisca are miffed to discover that apparently a few more guests have been let on a secret. Coming along for a day at the exclusive cove are: oddly intense surgeon (Rufus Sewell) and his much younger trophy wife, their young daughter, his elderly mother and her little terrier. There’s also a nurse and his psychologist wife who suffers from epileptic seizures. When the gang arrive, they meet another hotel guest, a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan, who is continuously bleeding from his nose, the first of the many disturbing things they discover at the beach.
A dead body of a woman floats by. There’s no phone reception. When they try to leave the beach by the same path through the cliffs, they black out and find themselves back where they started. True panic sets in when Guy and Prisca’s children age into teenagers in a matter of hours. The guests figure out that something about the beach has reduced a normal human lifespan to that of a mayfly, and that they’re aging two years for every hour that passes. Unless they find a way to escape, even the youngest of them will not last a couple of days.
This supremely creepy and intriguing idea is not served well by Shyamalan’s terrible script. It’s non-stop exposition, with characters painstakingly describing what’s taking place in that weird, clunky way that’s become something of a Shyamalan staple, burying any potential for a thoughtful exploration of mortality and brevity of life. How would you spend the rest of your life knowing that it will be over in a few hours? Hopefully you wouldn’t spend it spouting dialogue that sounds like it was written by an overly articulate ten-year-old, or maybe a Google AI machine.
That’s not to say that Old is not an entertaining bad movie, if you’re in the mood for silly, over-the-top horror that at times feels more like an unintentional comedy. A part of me wished that it was directed by someone like David Cronenberg, who could really go to town with all the gruesome, ravaging effects of time and illnesses on the human body, but there are still some grotesque sequences, like trying to remove a cancer tumour that’s grown the size of a melon in a matter of minutes while any cut you make into the body heals almost instantly. From the visual standpoint, I enjoyed the disorienting, surreal feel of the movie, and the beautiful but deadly beach feels almost like its own character, with its imposing rock wall and crashing waves.
Watching the quality actors push through Shyamalan’s diabolical dialogue is almost half the fun. The characters are one-dimensional and performances are mostly wooden across the board, but there are moments when Bernal and Krieps do manage to bring some warmth and humanity to their characters. Criminally underrated Rufus Sewell, who’s always had an arresting, disquieting presence, has the campy time of his life as the increasingly demented surgeon.
After an hour and a half of total silliness, the suitably absurd finale, complete with the obligatory twist reveal, did not disappoint. I’d prefer it if M. Night Shyamalan could return to the heights of the surprisingly solid Split from a few years back, but I seem to have developed a soft spot for his bad movies as well.