Old ★★

“The dog’s dead.”
“It was alive a minute ago!”

I don’t like Old, but I respect it. Shyamalan certainly commits to his premise, even if that premise seems like it was based in nothing more than a coded letter from a childhood friend that reads, “Fountain of… OLD???”

I will always harbour some affection for Shyamalan, even when his projects don’t land, if only because his work never feels phoned in. Shyamalan commits to his ideas, good and bad, in a way that demands the audience’s attention. This is obvious even in the way that Shyamalan shoots the movie, all intense close-ups that are often designed to conceal rather than reveal, or the whirling camera movements that draw attention to their own artfulness. Early in his career, Shyamalan was one of those directors touted as “the next Hitchcock.” Shyamalan’s commitment to the bit initially seemed self-aggrandising and ego-maniacal. However, after more than a decade of being humbled, his aggressive stylisation has circled back around to oddly endearing.

Old is based around aggressive commitment to a frankly absurd premise. There’s a moment when characters find a dusty notebook lying in the sand, populated with half-baked science-fiction pitches, and Old occasionally feels like the most rigorous adaptation of one of those single-line premises. The internal logic of the movie is ropey in the way that the worst Shyamalan features are, with Shyamalan’s insistence on articulating and explaining obvious production limitations - how come hair and nails don’t grow? - just raises more questions about things like rust. There’s a lot of stuff in Old that would be stronger if Shyamalan could just stop thinking about it - and therefore forcing the audience to think about it - but the film deserves marks for its confidence.

There are ideas and sequences in Old that feel like they should have been stripped out in the concept phase, like a plot element involving two toddlers hitting puberty within an hour of arriving on the beach in question. However, there are also delightfully demented extrapolations from the core concept, such as one sequence built around what happens to physical injuries when bones set instantly. Shyamalan can’t seem to distinguish the good ideas from the bad in this high concept, and so goes for broke, throwing everything that he has against the screen with no hesitation.

There are a variety of fundamental problems with Old. The film feels like it needed at least another dialogue pass, as characters talk in exposition or simply repeat their character traits at one another for the runtime of the films. The characters in Old feel more like concepts than like actual human beings, checklists of “cool stuff” that Shyamalan would like to do within the framework of this premise. It’s a strange complaint to have about a movie featuring a magic beach that accelerates time, but nothing about Old feels real. The emotional heft of key plot beats is repeatedly disregarded in favour of the next set piece. For a movie about growing old, Old is unwilling to slow down and sit with any of its ideas.

Old also weirdly suffers from the PG-13 rating. Of course, Shyamalan is very aggressively concealing and implying violence with his compositions, a technique that obviously evokes Hitchcock, but the basic premise of Old is built around one of the most basic sorts of body horror, the understanding that one day our bodies will turn against us. Old is never able to fully realise that potential, conspicuously cutting away from or obscuring the more graphic and unsettling implications of this basic plot.

As a result, the film works best in its more abstract and allegorical modes, treating the premise as essentially an extended metaphor. What would it be like to live your life in a day? What would it be like to see your kids grow up between blinks? Life moves quickly, after all. The recurring shots of the ocean erasing footprints, carrying away artefacts or approaching sandcastles are laboured and heavy handed, but they kinda work in context. Old would perhaps be much better, in its current incarnation, as a fairy tale rather than a horror movie.

There’s also an interesting self-awareness to Old. It’s another reminder to never accompany Ken Leung to a mysterious island, and it’s nice to see Rufus Sewell get to put his on slant on the lead role in The Father.