As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Old, you’ve been warned.
I’m turning 50 this year. Yep. And even though they say it’s the new 40 (or is it 30?), I can’t help but realize that there are probably more years behind me now than ahead of me. Being a cancer survivor makes these somewhat morbid ponderings of mortality even more frightening – knowing that the disease could return at any time and that maybe the next time will be the last.
Being around the same age, I can only imagine that M. Night Shyamalan must have had similar thoughts in mind when he decided to adapt the graphic novel Sandcastle for the screen. And here’s the thing about M. Night for me – I don’t love every flick he makes. In fact, I’m still mad about Glass – really mad, actually. I think I always will be, so don’t get me started on it.
But even after that, and no matter what, I still consider myself a fan. I’ll always check out whatever he does. M. Night is the closest thing we have to Alfred Hitchcock today, and his flicks are always (well, I guess except for Avatar: The Last Airbender) unique in their concepts. So even if they don’t always work, his flicks are a welcome respite from the endless stream of cookie-cutter, big-budget franchise flicks or pretentious Oscar bait.
The story starts with a family on vacation in the shuttle on the way to their hotel. We have the parents, Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and Guy (Gael GarcÍa Bernal), and their kids Trent (Nolan River) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton). We’re never told where they are exactly, and it’s not important. Suffice to say; it’s one of those super-swanky, wellness-focused tropical resorts. The family arrives to a full welcome wagon complete with cocktails for the adults and a 24-hour candy bar for the kids. Maddox and Trent meet a boy named Idlib (Kailen Jude), who lives at the hotel with his uncle, the resort manager (Gustav Hammarsten). He seems like a lonely kid, and it’s nice to see him and dorky, awkward Trent make fast friends.
But it isn’t long before we find out that all is not entirely peachy with this family. Prisca and Guy get into an argument that first night – something we can tell they often do. They don’t get into specifics, but the gist is that they’re headed for divorce, and this is their last vacation together. As Maddox and Trent listen and worry outside, Trent distracts himself by translating a coded message Idlib’s made for him – “Ice Cream Eating Contest Tomorrow.” Aww.
The next morning at breakfast, the hotel manager offers to arrange a trip to their private beach. But they won’t be the only ones going. There’s another family, a snotty doctor named Charles (Rufus Sewell), his trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their daughter Kara (Mikaya Fisher) and Charles’ mom, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). The shuttle driver (M. Night in his customary appearance) drops them all off at the head of the trail and says he’ll be back to get them later in the day. Everyone thinks it’s strange that he doesn’t help them carry all the gear – especially the heavy baskets of food. When they ask why they packed so much, all he says is that kids eat a lot. Hmm. Okay.
The travelers make their way through a slot canyon/cave that empties out on a gorgeous beach. Everyone’s thrilled with the beauty of it, and while the grownups relax, the kids play. The kids come across a bunch of junk half-buried in the sand – all kinds of things, toys, beach gear, clothes – things that others left behind. But why? Hmm.
Another couple soon joins them all, a nurse named Jarin (Ken Leung) and his wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird). They also discover someone else sitting there on the beach – someone Maddox recognizes as a rapper named (get this, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve heard in years) Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). He’s just sitting there in a weird funk, and no one’s too anxious to talk to him.
Things go from odd to downright creepy when Trent discovers a woman’s dead body floating in one of the shallow pools. Time to get an explanation from Ol’ Mid-Sized, who says they were there together. She went out swimming and he waited for her to come back, but she never did. And classist, racist Dr. Charles immediately assumes that Mid-Sized killed her, but before things can get too out of hand, they discover that Agnes has suddenly died.
Nobody can get a signal on their cell phones, so Jarin decides to walk back to where they were dropped off to see if he can call out from there. But he only gets a short way into the cave before he passes out – and wakes up back on the beach.
The kids are ravenous, just like M. Night said they would be – and it isn’t long before they start complaining that their clothes don’t fit anymore. And in oddly framed shots that don’t quite show their faces, we can’t really see what’s happening to them. But soon, Prisca and Guy are stunned to see Trent’s suddenly aged five years – as have Maddox and Kara. And Mid-Sized Sedan shows them all what’s happened to the girl he was with – just within the few hours they’ve been there, her body has decomposed all the way down to the bones, something that normally takes years.
Everyone keeps going back into the cave to try and get out, but the same thing keeps happening to all of them – they pass out and end up right back on the beach. As they try to reason out what and why of everything, they all discover that someone from each family has a serious medical condition of some kind. Dr. Charles is a paranoid schizophrenic, his wife Chrysta has a calcium deficiency, Patricia suffers from seizures and Mid-Sized Sedan has an issue with his blood being unable to clot, which gives him a constant nosebleed. And Prisca has a tumor in her stomach – which grows from a few centimeters to the size of a softball in a matter of minutes and she collapses.
Dr. Charles ends up doing a frighteningly rudimentary surgery on her, made even more gross when others must stick their fingers inside the incision to keep it from closing. But Dr. Charles manages to get it out, even as he keeps manically ranting about Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando and the flick he can’t remember them being in together (it’s 1976’s The Missouri Breaks, by the way).
Meanwhile, Trent and Kara are hiding out in a makeshift tent, trying to comfort each other. And when they finally emerge, they’ve aged again – and Kara’s pregnant. Yow. Everyone freaks out, realizing that not only have they had sex but also that a nine-month gestation period will be over in a matter of minutes. A terrified Kara has to drop down on a beach towel and push the baby out. Sadly, whatever force is causing everyone’s rapid aging is fatal to the baby, who dies almost immediately.
Realizing that they’re basically trapped there on the beach, everyone becomes more frazzled and desperate to find a way out as time ticks away. Jarin decides to swim to the other side of the island – but he never makes it, leaving his wife to die when seizures suddenly overtake her.
A traumatized Kara (Eliza Scanlen) gives the baby to an equally distraught Trent (Alex Wolff), who goes to bury the baby only to have it crumble and turn to ash in his hands. Unable to take any more, Kara starts climbing the massive rock wall enclosing the beach – but just as it looks like she might be able to reach the top, she suddenly stops and falls, to everyone’s horror.
As the sun sets and night falls, the aging that wasn’t as obvious on the adults becomes more pronounced. Dr. Charles ends up having a full-on psychotic break and kills Mid-Size Sedan, ranting about him breaking into his house and stealing stuff before he dies. Prisca and Guy then succumb to their rapid aging, with Guy losing his sight and Prisca losing her hearing. There’s a wonderful, beautifully sad scene between the two of them as they try to remember what it was that they were fighting about before. They both realize that whatever it was, wasn’t important – and that all they really wanted was to be there together with their kids. Moments later, they both die.
Maddox and Trent try going through the cave, only to be chased by Chrysta, who’s become a sort of monster due to her calcium deficiency eating away at her bones and giving her a hunchback. She rants and raves about not wanting anyone to look at her as her bones break and fuse in unnatural, contorted ways. It’s by far the scariest part of the flick.
As the sun comes up again, now-adult Maddox and Trent (Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliott) are still stuck on the beach, out of ideas. They decide to build a sandcastle, and Trent remembers that Idlib gave him another coded note. The translated note says: “My uncle doesn’t like the coral.” And Trent and Maddox realize that it’s the way out – they need to swim through the coral reef just offshore to escape the beach.
And from his surveillance position on top of the nearby mountain, M. Night’s shuttle driver watches as they swim out to the coral and go underwater – but they never resurface on the other side. And underwater, we see Maddox get her clothes caught on the coral and it looks like they both might drown.
We then follow M. Night as he leaves his post and drives back to the resort – only it’s not the hotel part. It’s the big reveal – a full-on, high-tech medical laboratory, where teams of scientists make all kinds of medicines from the island’s plants. M. Night talks to the resort manager, who comes in to let the scientists know that everyone from the latest test group has died. There’s a moment of silence, and then they start talking about the results of the medicines that were tested on them – given to them in those welcome cocktails.
Apparently, the medicine Patricia took kept her from having any seizures for hours (aka years). Very successful. But no results from Mid-Sized Sedan’s blood-clotting medicine could be gathered because Dr. Charles murdered him. The scientists argue with the resort manager about keeping the mental health cases separate from those with physical medical conditions.
But none of it matters anyway, as Trent and Maddox show up back at the hotel, just as the next group of unsuspecting test subjects arrives. They rat out the whole shebang to one of the other guests who’s a police officer – who in turn calls in the CIA. Then we cut to Trent and Maddox on a helicopter, on their way back home to their relatives.
It’s not exactly the most satisfying ending, but Old presents a myriad of themes – the biggest of which is obviously life itself. How fragile it can be, how quickly it passes by and how distracted we all become by things that, in the end, don’t matter nearly as much as our connection to our loved ones. But there’s also the idea that a place like that beach could exist and that it could be the perfect way to test out new treatments. But do the benefits negate the moral issue of having human test subjects who don’t know they’re test subjects?
So if you’re like me, Old will make you think about things you may not want to think about. It may end up more bummed out than entertained. And it certainly isn’t some big actioner or even true horror. It’s a Twilight Zone-ish meditation, a visual essay on life itself – creepy, weird, funny and sad all at the same time. And I give M. Night props for putting it out there. It’s not what everybody else is doing, and that alone makes it worthwhile.
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan (screenplay), Pierre-Oscar Lévy (graphic novel), Frederick Peeters (graphic novel)
Release Date: July 23, 2021
Run Time: 1 hr 48 min
Distributor: Universal Pictures
This article was originally published on 7/29/21.