Old review: M. Night Shyamalan’s latest is a fairy tale, not twist-ending horror

We’re all getting older. That anxiety is so fundamental, it feels silly to turn it into a film premise, much less making it a film called Old. We’re adults, and sophisticated ones at that! We appreciate subtlety more than we want a film with a title that doubles as a very rude callout. But maybe adulthood is the problem. The twist to the latest film from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan isn’t in its story, which does exactly what the audience might expect. The surprises come from its presentation, which is surprisingly affectionate for a film that doesn’t shy away from horrific death. Old is a pretty lousy horror film about adults, but a pretty good one about children.

Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, Old is a straightforward thriller about a bunch of people on a secluded, idyllic beach. Over time, they realize something is very wrong: They’re all aging astonishingly fast. Children become teenagers, then adults. Wrinkles appear before their very eyes. Sight and hearing start to decay. And none of them are able to leave, as everyone who tries to head out the way they came blacks out, then wakes up in the surf again.

The source material doesn’t offer an explanation for the phenomenon, but Old does. This moves Shyamalan’s adaptation more into the realm of mystery and away from contemplative horror, which feels like a grave, fundamental mistake. Shyamalan’s latter-day career has been characterized by a move away from the big twists that were a calling card for his early hits like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, and while Old doesn’t return to that big-twist tradition, Shyamalan’s preoccupation with providing answers may goose viewers’ expectations. Everything gets explained in Old, and that explanation doesn’t recontextualize the preceding hour and a half in a particularly profound way. The story does make sense, but it also feels like it comes from another film entirely, one concerned with very different ideas than Old.

It can’t be stressed enough how much of Old is simply working through this premise, showing how the vacationers slowly realize what’s happening, as they eventually give in to despair or fail to escape. The central characters are Guy and Prisca (Gael Garcia Bernal and Phantom Thread star Vicky Krieps), a couple whose marriage is on the rocks. They’re taking one last trip before breaking the news to their children, Trent and Maddox (initially played by Luca Faustino Rodriguez and Alexa Swinton, and then others as they age).

When the family arrives at their surprisingly swank hotel, the host offers them and a few other guests a shuttle to the best beach on the island, where the bulk of the film plays out. Joining them are an arrogant doctor (Rufus Sewell), his vain wife (Abby Lee), and their child (initially 6 years old and played by Kyle Bailey), a rapper (Aaron Pierre), a nurse (Ken Leung) and his psychologist wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird).

Old has been marketed and constructed as a thriller — the opening act is steeped in dread, and its horror comes from the whittling down of its small cast, both psychologically and mortally. But it’s also a surprisingly sentimental film. While its title and premise presume a focus on an adult fear of aging and death, Shyamalan’s script and staging is overwhelmingly concerned with children. The few scenes before the beach are almost entirely from their perspective, as Trent, precocious and smart, rattles off facts and makes friends, and his older sister Maddox looks out for him. The nightmare of the beach isn’t what happens to the adults, who ought to know better, but the children, who, mere feet away from their parents, are thrust into adulthood without any guidance at all, getting a lifetime’s worth of regret compressed into a few moments.

Beachgoers discover a skeleton in M. Night Shyamalan’s Old.

Photo: Universal Pictures

Shyamalan’s camera focuses in on fleeting moments: awkward limbs, things lost in the surf and tide. He gives attention and care to games of freeze tag, little puzzles and sandcastles, and the strangeness of characters suddenly finding themselves in older, more mature bodies. Getting old isn’t terrible, but growing up is.

From this lens, Old is less a thriller than an off-kilter fairy tale, a winking parable about the narrow selfishness of adulthood snuffing out the broad curiosity of children. It’s not particularly subtle, but it is affectionate and a little bit wistful. As a thriller, the film is middling, occasionally confronting the audience with shocking body horror, but mostly exploring overwrought anxieties. As a lamentation, it’s sometimes facile, but also occasionally beautiful. It’s an ironic statement, however intentional, from a filmmaker known for his endings. Getting old is, after all, just another ending. If you focus on it too much, you miss the whole damn point.

Old premieres in theaters on July 23.

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