Children are astute little people in M. Night Shyamalan’s films. They’re the non-heroic centres of his farfetched yarns, who are closely related to the heroic protagonists of his stories. They are, likely, the director’s subconscious personification in the film, displaying a benevolent, worldly aura. They talk sense in critical circumstances, and clue the viewers in when things become fantastical.

So, when one of the two kids in Old asks the question most kids presumably ask during journeys — are we there yet? — we realise that they, voicing Shyamalan, are quite dumb this time round.

Akin to the children in the film, Shyamalan is in a hurry, and more than a little imprudent.

Adapting the French-language Swiss graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, Shyamalan infuses Old with his idiosyncratic touches, stripping away character-building scenes that would create empathy for them when everything goes bananas.

Akin to its title, M. Night Shayamalan’s Old turns stale on you long before the end credits roll

The people in the film — especially the adults — turn out to be just as dumb as the young…and let me confirm the obvious: watching desperate idiots running around with aghast faces is not a good way to kill an hour and 50 minutes.

In the film this happens: a couple on the verge of separation (Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps), with the wife suffering from a stomach tumour, stumble upon an ideal vacation resort online. They are greeted by a creepy-eyed hostess and an obliging manager, who unsubtly give them “a cocktail based on their personal preferences” (the unsubtlety in the screenplay and the direction is Shaymalan’s fault).

After feigning happiness in front of the children and bickering behind closed doors, the couple are sent on a secret beach with two families: one has a schizophrenic surgeon with a dark secret we never learn (Rufus Sewell), his very skinny, trophy wife who has hypocalcemia (Abbey Lee Kershaw), his mother (Kathleen Chalfant) and their six-year-old child (Kyle Begley). The other family is of a male nurse and his psychologist wife who suffers from epileptic attacks (Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird). At the beach, they find a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) afflicted with hemophilia — his nose bleeds nonstop — and his dead female companion floating in the cove.

This is when the plot of the film — miniscule as it is — hits the characters on the beach: everyone there starts aging, first slowly then at a frightening momentum. Children go from single-digit ages to lanky-teenagers with developing bodies within hours — their maturity getting more “coloured” as a character puts it. The adults — it is here when you note that almost every adult has an illness — lose their cool, bickering, banging heads, trying to find a way out of the beach, which, magically, doesn’t let them go.

Shyamalan — a man who prefers to write scenes without too many visual effects — almost exclusively relies on economical camera tricks to create a sensation of intrigue and the passage of time for the characters. Incorporating CG visual effects would have been a better choice.

The cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, who shot Split and its sequel Glass for the director, delivers a ho-hum job that’s mostly at the mercy of Shyamalan’s screenplay and direction — two aspects that do the film in.

Bad blocking, ineffective shot choices, next to no connection to characters and the dilemmas — and near-amateur performances — Old affirms an already-established fact: Shyamalan’s career fluctuates between good enough to unbearable films as soon as you begin to appreciate his idiosyncratic touches as a filmmaker.

It used to work out splendidly with surprising frequency once upon a time. Now on his 14th film, his work draws a parallel to Pakistani cinema: a truly unique film with finesse, and not just a cool idea (the ideas are still fantastic, by the way), comes only once a while.

Old, released by Universal, sticks to its PG-13 rating. Nothing to object here, rating wise — storytelling-wise, now that’s a whole different story

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 26th, 2021

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