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The Stew Review: Strong concept of ‘Old’ is failed by abysmal script

Prisca (Vicky Krieps, far left) and Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal, middle right) embrace their...
Prisca (Vicky Krieps, far left) and Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal, middle right) embrace their children, Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie, center) and Trent (Luca Faustino Rodriguez) in a scene from M. Night Shyamalan's "Old."(Universal Pictures)
Published: Jul. 27, 2021 at 4:28 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - M. Night Shyamalan needs to let someone else write his movies.

The central concept of Old is fantastic. “An exotic beach inexplicably makes everyone who visits it age at a highly accelerated rate” sounds like a fun scenario to watch. It also seems like a setup rife with interesting thematic avenues to explore. So it’s incredibly disappointing that Shyamalan only occasionally taps into the juice of the premise while all but ignoring anything that would otherwise give the story any amount of dramatic or emotional heft.

We’re led into the film by a family on vacation. The mother, Prisca (Vicky Krieps), “miraculously” finds online some heretofore unknown fancy schmancy hotel in an unnamed exotic beach location. But Prisca is there just to soak up the sun. She and her husband, Guy (Gael Garcia Gernal), will have an easier time breaking the news of their impending divorce if their two kids, Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River) have had a few days in paradise first. They’re told by a friendly concierge that he’s giving them exclusive access to a private, hidden beach. Who could turn that down?

They’re not alone, though, as two additional families find themselves on the beach and I suppose this is where the script really begins to buckle under its own weight. We have 11 characters total, all vying for time and attention. And while some exit the story sooner than most, it still feels like too many people vying for attention, especially when you consider that there’s essentially no real story to begin with. It has the trappings of an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, but those at least are driven by the likes of a Miss Marple or Inspector Poirot. There is no single driving personality here, no one character we can ever look to for any kind of a narrative or thematic focal point to center the proceedings.

Whose story is this? I honestly couldn’t tell you. I’m not sure Shyamalan could either, honestly. None of these characters have any real defining qualities beyond their surface level identifier of doctor, mother, kid, teen, gold-digging trophy wife, rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan, etc. The only thing driving the film forward is the central mystery and even that only remains interesting for so long when there are no characters worth investing in or rooting for. There’s about enough material here for a solid 30-45 minutes of television. Had Shyamalan made this an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, it would likely be considered an instant classic. But as is, the limited material is stretched far beyond its capacity to sustain interest. There are some moments of body-related horror that stick out, but those moments are fleeting and far between.

Tying it all together into a package that is, at times, simply excruciating to watch is the utterly abhorrent dialogue. I can’t remember the last time I saw a professionally made film with dialogue this poorly written and delivered. Though I suppose I should be far less hard on the actors tasked with reciting words this amateurish. It’s as though the script was written by an artificial intelligence program that had no real understanding of how actual people converse or even talk.

My perception of Old might have been salvaged at least minimally if the ending hadn’t gone so hard into explaining everything. Once the reveal is made, it makes sense in context but then it just...keeps explaining things. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that nothing be explained, but leaving things with a more sinister or even minimally mysterious edge would have done wonders for how thin everything before it ends up feeling.

It’s been nearly 20 years since Shyamalan released his last universally liked film (Signs in 2002), and yet I still have yet to be able to put my finger on what or why it all went wrong. He’s been on the outs, as it were, in terms of perception for too long for his bafflingly bad output to be the result of ego. And it’s not like he hasn’t made a few good things between Signs and now. I’ll readily defend his script for Devil (yes, the demon-possessed elevator movie). But on the whole, I’ll likely never be able to reconcile the fact that the guy who made a stone-cold, pop culture-defining classic his first time at-bat theatrically with The Sixth Sense could fall so hard, and just...keep falling, for the most part.

Is Old the worst thing Shyamalan has made? Almost certainly not. Even The Happening can be enjoyed as a gloriously stupid b-movie and it’s hard for a bar of failure to be lower than The Last Airbender. But Old may be the film that feels like a strong case of a wasted opportunity, and that stings more than a disastrous failure.

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