M. Night Shyamalan is up to his old tricks in “Old,” but after his heralded breakthrough with “Split,” he’s back on a downward trajectory. While the premise again has an eerie “Twilight Zone”-type quality, the long journey to a payoff – littered with pretty awful dialogue – might be picturesque, but it’s no walk on the beach.
The writer-director-producer’s career began so impressively with “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” that early admirers of his work might have expected too much, becoming increasingly mystified as it drifted into second-tier productions like “The Village” and “Lady in the Water.”
While “Split” offered a modest return to form, “Glass” didn’t fully live up to its promise, and now “Old” turns another provocative concept into a bit of an ordeal, one that the twist can’t fully salvage.
The premise finds a family of four, heading by parents played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps (“Phantom Thread”), arriving at a sumptuous resort (the movie was shot in the Dominican Republic), wanting to show their young kids a good time despite obvious strain in their marriage.
Looking for activities, they’re directed by the hotel manager to a private, secluded beach, which he describes as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Once there, though – accompanied by two other families – strange things start to happen, as everyone begins rapidly aging, a condition most immediately noticeable in the children, but not limited to them.
What’s the cause, and is there a way out? For starters, there’s no cellphone reception, and the guide (Shyamalan, in one of his regular cameos) dropped them off and left.
Inspired by a graphic novel titled “Sandcastle,” the macabre premise is certainly in the director’s wheelhouse. But once the set-up gets established, the escalating situations become increasingly schlocky, at times resembling a bad horror movie from the 1970s, and efforts to inject heart into these hurriedly introduced characters feel particularly forced.
Those shortcomings leave the cast – which also includes Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Alex Wolff and Nikki Amuka-Bird – stranded in more ways than one. And while there’s a fair amount of clarity in the resolution, unlike Shyamalan’s early triumphs, the finish (which fares better the less one dwells on it) doesn’t deliver the kind of wallop this sort of exercise could use.
As tempting as it might be to say that Shyamalan’s appeal hasn’t aged well, “Split” cast doubts on that argument. While the genre that “Old” represents has an encouraging track record, to the extent it’s taking some prodding to draw people back to theaters, it would be nice to reward them with a movie more satisfying than this.
“Old” premieres in US theaters on July 23. It’s rated PG-13.