M. Night Shyamalan has produced one of the strangest writer/director careers in cinema history.
In 1999, he found immediate acclaim and popularity with “The Sixth Sense,” earning Oscar nominations for best picture, best director and best original screenplay. He followed that up with my favorite of his work, “Unbreakable,” in 2000. Then in 2002 the wheels started to fall off. Well, some think “Signs” is a great movie, but I’m not one of them. It was also around this time when “Newsweek” put Shyamalan on the cover of its magazine, calling him “The Next Spielberg.”
That hype faded quickly after 2004’s “The Village,” 2006’s “Lady in the Water,” 2008’s “The Happening,” 2010’s “The Last Airbender” and 2013’s “After Earth.” In about 10 years, Shyamalan went from “The Next Spielberg” to a joke. Finally in 2015, he returned to form with “The Visit” and tacked on the surprise sequel to “Unbreakable,” “Split” in 2016. I loved “Split” and was excited to see how he would complete the trilogy with “Glass” in 2019. Once again, he underwhelmed. Shyamalan is the Hollywood version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He’ll give audiences an awesome film or a bad film. And not much in between. The polarizing writer/director used his talents to create another bad film with “Old.”
Based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters, “Old” is a Shyamalized version of a good concept. I don’t think I need to get into the concept because you’ve been seeing the trailer for this movie every day for the past three months on TV, social media and YouTube. However, a group of people are stuck on a beach and aging rapidly. They have to try to figure out how to stop the aging and how to get off the beach. That’s a perfect setup for a film. Great simplicity. Intimate setting. High intensity.
Enter M. Night Shyamalan.
When Shyamalan’s films go awry, they fail the same way. “Old” is no different. Here are three signs you’re in the midst of a bad Shyamalan film.
1. Bad dialogue
In the first 30 seconds, I knew the movie was in trouble. The dialogue proved atrocious, which affected the actors. I know half the actors and have seen them perform well in other movies. Vicky Krieps in “Phantom Thread,” Rufus Sewell in “A Knight’s Tale,” Alex Wolff in “Hereditary” and Thomasin McKenzie in “Jojo Rabbit.” These are good actors in acclaimed films. They did their best, but they were awful. It’s not their fault. The dialogue is just that bad. How many times have we seen Shyamalan turn the most charismatic actors wooden. See Will Smith in “After Earth” or Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in “The Happening.” Krieps is lifeless. Ken Leung, a good character actor, gives the worst performance of his career. Again, not their fault. Shyamalan dialogue does that all the time. Audiences can’t escape into the film when characters act so unnaturally. The only person who seems to know how to act in the film is Shyamalan, who once again inserted himself into the film in a cameo role.
2. Weird camerawork
Often in his bad films, Shyamalan tries to make artsy shots for the sake of artsy shots. They don’t serve a purpose. These often include unnecessary close-ups that prove uncomfortable, scenes where objects get in the way of the action and tracking shots that exist to show he can do them. In “Old,” there’s a scene where the camera is on the edge of the water by the shore and the waves keep pushing the water over the camera so all the audience can see is the water. So a few seconds pass and the audience sees the action. Then a few seconds pass and water washes over the camera. Then the action, then the water. It doesn’t have any purpose. He just wants to show he can do it. He also has one-take shots that are completely illogical. He spreads the characters out on the beach just so he can set up the shots. He also creates tracking shots with 360-degree pans to show everything that’s happening around the beach, but the characters aren’t doing anything interesting. In the meantime, the action is happening outside of the shot just so Shyamalan can show us how talented he is. He over-directs and it makes it difficult to focus on the film.
3. Dull twist
Almost all of his movies build to a plot twist, which puts a lot of pressure on his films. I’ll give him credit that he continues to create movies with twists. Facing an audience that knows something is coming at the end of the film is like playing a basketball team that knows your plays and still trying to defeat it. Every now and then he succeeds, which is an incredible feat. In “Old,” the twist is actually as interesting as the film’s concept. However, the film’s rushed ending botches the execution. The movie spends too much time on the beach and not enough time to shore up the ending.
Those three Shyamalanisms weren’t this film’s only issues. The characters age at different rates. Two of the child characters age and turn into different actors. They are siblings and the sister is older than the brother. Midway through the film, the brother turns into an actor who is older than the actress the sister transforms into. Furthermore, the characters are unrealistically gullible and their occupations prove perfectly useful. There are also a few unanswerable questions that have stuck with me that I can’t discuss here without spoilers.
Shyamalan also didn’t respect the audience, feeling the need to explain a lot. There’s one scene that sticks out. It was so strange because the film sets up the sequence nicely and then the character starts screaming what we already know. I was confused, and I felt patronized in my theater recliner.
In Shyamalan’s attempt to get the audience to notice his work in the director’s chair, he does put a few good sequences together with solid visual storytelling. Also, I do appreciate that this horror film had no fake jump scares. However, there weren’t many other positives in this poorly executed project.
At this point Shyamalan is no longer frustrating, he’s just accepted. We know we’re going to get one of two things with each of his films. He’ll use his talent to create greatness or underwhelm. He was Mr. Hyde when he made “Old.” Maybe next time we see him, he’ll have transformed back to Dr. Jekyll.
1.5 out of 5 stars
Ever since 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” put M. Night Shyamalan on the map, I’ve been a fan of the polarizing filmmaker. With his penchant for building suspense and unease, Shyamalan is the closest director we have today to Alfred Hitchcock, my all-time favorite. Ever the risk-taker, Shyamalan perfected the plot twist that modern audiences have come to expect.
In the hierarchy of Shyamalan’s films, my favorite is “Unbreakable,” the visionary precursor to the current crop of comic book movies. “Signs” is a close second, the writer-director’s most Hitchcockian work with its themes of spiritual and family distress amid an alien invasion. I adore “The Village,” an underrated work of art and testament to Shyamalan’s craftsmanship.
Between 2006 and 2013, it was hard being a Shyamalanite when the misses started to outnumber the hits. “Lady in the Water” and the laughable “The Happening” tarnished the filmmaker’s “master of suspense” title, and his big-budget failures, “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” seemed to doom his future in blockbusters. Thankfully, the back-to-basics 2015 gem “The Visit” marked a return to form, and 2016’s intense “Split” solidified Shyamalan’s upswing before 2019’s “Glass” further divided audiences.
This brings us to “Old,” Shyamalan’s latest foray into horror that was pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. The unnerving film about a group of people trapped on a beach where they age quickly showcases the best and worst of the writer-director.
“Old” is mid-pack Shyamalan. With its intriguing concept, the film steadily sows suspense, a solid display of Shyamalan’s filmmaking talent. But its uneven execution prevents “Old” from being as great as it could have been.
The real star of Shyamalan’s movies is Shyamalan himself. However divisive his films are, the one aspect that’s never in question is the director’s mastery of the craft. Bathed in soft blues and sandy browns, “Old” is gorgeous to look at, with stunning cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, who also lensed “Split” and “Glass.” The film was shot in the Dominican Republic, Shyamalan’s first movie filmed outside his beloved Philadelphia. With an eye for the unsettling, the director manages to make the beach – a dream vacation for a pandemic-starved public – both inviting and threatening. Even the palm trees in the opening scene seem to wave ominously.
The director uses 360-degree dolly shots to great effect, circling the cast of characters as they struggle to understand their situation. Shyamalan chooses to keep the negative space between the actors in frame, highlighting the beach’s isolated setting. Closeups of the characters’ faces convey their confusion and then horror. Shyamalan works in some creative shots that heighten the suspense. The children’s faces are hidden from our view until the parents see them, revealing the rapid progression at which they are aging. But like Hitchcock, Shyamalan cuts away from the nastiness of certain scenes, adhering to the adage that what the mind can imagine is more frightening than what can be shown onscreen.
The stakes in “Old” increase with every terrifying event on the beach, ramping up the tension and the sense of urgency. Each instance builds to the next, helping the characters realize that time is working against them. I was riveted as the group worked together to tackle one hurdle after the next. In one sequence, a character must undergo a crude surgery to remove a fast-growing tumor. In another, a character is revealed to be pregnant and about to give birth before the full ramifications of the situation can set in. It all leads to an edge-of-your seat climax.
“Old” reinforces the notion that time is precious. As the cast comes face-to-face with death, one of the children remarks how they won’t get to experience life’s key milestones, including prom and graduation. The line really hits home after the last year, representing the experience of teens who missed these events due to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, most of the dialogue in “Old” is nowhere near as eloquent as this. Shyamalan may be clever at devising twists, but he doesn’t have the same panache for writing dialogue, and it affects the cast’s performance. There’s a dividing line between which actors can overcome the bad dialogue and which can’t.
The kids fare the best. Thomasin McKenzie, who shined in “Jojo Rabbit,” brings a maturity beyond her years to the role of Maddox, who starts the film at the tender age of 11. Alex Wolff (Trent), who’s busy building a horror resume after 2018’s chilling “Hereditary,” and Eliza Scanlon (Kara), who looks unrecognizable after turns in “Little Women” and “The Devil All the Time,” deftly balance the naivete of their 6-year-old selves with the growing awareness of their teenage bodies. The adults are iffier. The standout is Rufus Sewell (Charles), whose moody doctor becomes more menacing with each scene. I also really liked Aaron Pierre as level-headed rapper Mid-Sized Sedan. As Maddox and Trent’s parents, Gael García Bernal (Guy) and Vicky Krieps (Prisca) have their moments, but both struggle with the stilted language. Ken Leung (Jarin) gets the worst dialogue, resulting in a cringeworthy performance.
The film also suffers from overexplaining itself. There’s so much exposition inserted into the characters’ dialogue that it feels forced, providing a buzzkill during some suspenseful scenes. In case you forget which character has seizures, you’ll be reminded before seeing another seizure. Yet for as much as the film explains itself, there’s still plot holes. For instance, the beach seems to allow characters to instantly heal – until it suddenly doesn’t.
As for the twist itself, “Old” delivers a good one that makes sense for the story. However, the film doesn’t spend enough time with it. The last 15 minutes after the twist is revealed feel disconnected from the rest of the movie. But the ending is ultimately satisfying, which isn’t always the case with Shyamalan’s films.
Depending on where you fall on Shyamalan, the real twist in “Old” may be that it’s good. Channeling Hitchcock once again, the director weaves a tension-filled tale that makes us appreciate the time we have, as well as Shyamalan’s sheer talent behind the camera. But the thought-provoking effort falls short of his best films, plagued by bad dialogue, over-explanations and a semi-successful twist. You may be almost two hours older after watching “Old,” but for Shyamalan fans, it’s mostly time well spent.
3 out of 5 stars
Rebecca Kivak and Joe Baress write about movies for Take 2 blog. Together, they review current flicks and offer their insights into the latest movie news. Rebecca is a copy editor and page designer at The Times-Tribune. She started her career with Times-Shamrock Newspapers in 2005 and has won several professional journalism awards for page design and headline writing. She also covers NASCAR races from Pocono Raceway. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5126; @TTRebeccaKivak