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28 July 2021updated 14 Sep 2021 2:08pm

M Night Shyamalan’s Old is all concept and no character

Once the premise has been established, Shyamalan is at a loss for what to do with it, killing time and treading water. 

By Ryan Gilbey

Directors have been scrawling their stories in the sand since the beginnings of cinema: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou ended with a couple half-buried on a beach; Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr looked a good deal livelier writhing together in the waves in From Here to Eternity; and Charlton Heston found the clue to a cosmic riddle poking out of the sand in Planet of the Apes.

The director François Ozon has spent much of his career on the beach in films such as the sun-kissed shocker Regarde la Mer and the psychological drama Under the Sand, so it’s tempting to imagine the sort of suspense he would have brought to Old, a new thriller confined to a secluded tropical cove. Unfortunately, M Night Shyamalan – the shlock-pedlar behind The Sixth Sense and Split  got there first. That’s the way the sandcastle crumbles.

The cove in question is reserved for specially invited guests from a nearby upmarket resort. These include the troubled couple Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and their children, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old Trent (Nolan River), who is downhearted to discover he is too young for scuba diving. Also among the chosen few are the gruff doctor Charles (Rufus Sewell), his younger wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee) and their family, as well as Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a psychologist given to touchy-feely jargon.

These elite holidaymakers are ferried to the private beach in a mini-van. Never shy to cast himself in one of his own movies, Shyamalan plays the driver who drops them off near the coastline but will proceed no further. He is privy to the beach’s secret: anyone who visits will be prevented by a mysterious force from leaving, just as the dinner party guests are in (Buñuel again) The Exterminating Angel.

At least they won’t be stuck there too long, since the beach causes all who set foot on its sands to age at an accelerated rate. Roughly two years per hour, in fact, which means decrepitude before dusk for Guy and Prisca, and a crash-course in puberty and young adulthood for the kids. On the upside, Trent won’t have to wait so long now to go scuba diving.

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Essentially, this is Cocoon in reverse – a saga for the anti-Saga crowd. Shyamalan previously exploited a terror of ageing in his 2015 camcorder horror The Visit, in which two teenagers are repulsed by their creepy grandparents. (Soiled adult diapers feature prominently.) In the new film, the director’s gerontophobia gets old real quick.

It would be a plus if one felt that his screenplay adapted from the thoughtful, disturbing graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters was alert to the black comedy of the scenario, or if it fully confronted the emotional disorientation of the youngsters, who yearn to be older only to get more than they wished for. This sort of twist is a gift to the fantasy genre: think of the young protagonist of Howl’s Moving Castle, doomed to spend the rest of her life as an old woman, or the hero of Flight of the Navigator, abducted by aliens for eight years and then returned to Earth to find his parents ageing and his kid brother now older than he is.

Then again, it’s not altogether certain that Shyamalan would know how to express that sense of melancholy. His dialogue rarely rises above the level of daytime soap (“Let’s not bring an irrelevant medical condition into this”) or the realm of the bleeding obvious (“Something is going on with time on the beach!”). It’s left to the high-calibre cast – also featuring Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) and Eliza Scanlen (Babyteeth) as older incarnations of tweens or toddlers to bring intriguing inflections to unpromising exchanges. Especially nice is Krieps’s tender delivery when she touches her husband’s face, and says those words to strike fear into the heart of any movie star: “You have wrinkles.”

For the most part, though, Old is all concept and no character. Once the premise has been established, Shyamalan seems at a loss for what to do with it; for a film in which the years run away with themselves, the sensation here is one of killing time and treading water. A fancy camera angle observing the holidaymakers through the ribcage of a skeleton lying on the beach offers an inadvertent commentary on the movie’s problems. There isn’t enough flesh on its frame.

All M Night Shyamalan films have a chaser of life lessons to go with the frights, and Old is no exception: Guy and Prisca soon start wondering why they spent so much of their life together arguing, and decide almost too late to cherish the hours they have left.

In Sandcastle, those ideas feel implicit. The graphic novel is a model of concision, too, with a remorseless pay-off that is startling in its simplicity. In adapting it for the screen, Shyamalan has gone to unnecessary lengths to find earnest explanations for its enigmas. What hasn’t occurred to him in his scramble to tie up all the loose ends is that the story already has closure built into its bones. It’s called death.

“Old” is in cinemas now