Twist endings are something of a forte for M. Night Shyamalan, having been the trademark upon which he has built his career following his breakthrough film The Sixth Sense. Some of his twists have been interesting, others disappointing, and though he often executes them with finesse, none have lived up to the masterful reveal at the end of The Sixth Sense, and it is likely none ever will. That doesn’t stop him continuing with a tried and tested formula, and Old follows exactly that.
The usual Shyamalan narrative is at work here, with an intriguing setup and a central mystery which the viewer will stick with as the tension rises, hoping for a satisfying explanation when the third act twist kicks in. The premise Old presents is equal parts pretentious and intriguing, playing on the desire for an answer which it elicits: a group of holidaymakers find themselves on a deserted beach where they age years in hours, growing old at an incredible rate. As they are faced with their own mortality they attempt to solve the mystery of what is happening to them whilst finding a way off the beach, which seems to be impossible.
Characters regularly make poor decisions in stories, and that is to be expected, but fairly early on here some of the characters not only come up with a reasonable—and, as it turns out, correct—answer for what is happening, but also devise a solution which they then completely forget about and don’t even attempt. It is frustrating to watch, especially as time passes and things get worse.
The writing is not up to scratch here, and the dialogue doesn’t work within the framing of the story. The narrative could have been better presented as a limited series, perhaps unfolding in real time like 24, which would have allowed for realistic dialogue and more character exploration. Instead, we have on-the-nose comments, with the only moments of interesting conversation happening amidst the panic and delivered by the always excellent Rufus Sewell.
Sewell is an underrated and often-overlooked actor who has one of the most expressive faces I have seen. Even when he is given a poor script or a small part he still manages to shine, and here he is no different. He is joined in the ensemble cast by Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps as the central couple, with various actors playing their children as they age. Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung are another couple on the beach, and Aaron Pierre is a pop star who is also stuck there. Sewell’s wife is played by Abbey Lee, who works hard with a shallow character and despite the poor writing makes a solid impact herself.
There are some interesting moments of horror in this film, particularly later on, but also some tender plot points. It’s a shame that the payoff is so anticlimactic, but if the film was more a shaggy dog story where the journey was the point, instead of putting so much stock in the destination, it would have been more successful. As it stands, Old is an infuriating story which does not stand out as one of Shyamalan’s best, but is far from his worst. Just like the beach on which it is filmed, it looks great, but it is ultimately shallow.