‘Old’: ambivalence at Shyamalan’s take on ‘aging anxiety’

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Ever wonder what you would do if you found out that tomorrow was your last day on earth? Well, this is exactly the type of question M. Night Shyamalan’s 2021 thriller, Old, deals with. Of course, there is plenty more to his film than the challenges of being faced with imminent mortality.  However, for the most part, Old succeeds in its efforts to represent how humans react to the two fears that dominate contemporary society: death, and the short and rapid journey to death. 

Shyamalan opens by immediately throwing his audience into a tropical island, where a family are taking their final vacation before admitting to their two children that they will be separating. Within a few days, the resort manager persuades the family into a day out to the resort’s private beach. Accompanied by one other family and later, three more holiday-goers, they quickly realize that the beach isn’t all that it seems. In fact, the rocks surrounding the beach contain minerals that cause the vacationers’ cells to age rapidly, meaning that every half an hour equates to a year passing. No doubt is the concept behind Old not only interesting but surprisingly underexplored in this literal way it is tackled by Shyamalan. Yet, this literal representation is not without its flaws. 

The various discrepancies in screenwriting, character development, and numerous plot twists do, too, catch the audience’s attention. Yet, not in a good way.

Although the concepts throughout Old never fail to leave the audience’s eyes glued to the screen, the various discrepancies in screenwriting, character development and numerous plot twists do, too, catch the audience’s attention. Yet, not in a good way.  For example, all the characters seem to enter a strange state of inexplicable confusion, and it is unclear at times whether this is a deliberate choice by Shyamalan or a result of poor screenwriting. For instance, a character called Prisca, repeatedly asks a holiday-goer, who happens to be a doctor, to look at her children as she thinks their rapid aging is explainable by a virus. Although the odd situation calls for some level of confusion, the fact that Prisca, who was only a few hours ago completely intact with reality, now thinks that rapid ageing is explainable by a virus, or something her children ate, is pretty difficult to believe.

Furthermore, the mother of the second family, Crystal, is turned into a caricature of a Beverly Hills housewife somewhat mixed with the Wicked Witch of the West with her hyperbolic mourning of the loss of her youth. Crystal’s husband, Charles, also has a dramatic shift in character arc when what I thought were symptoms of early-onset dementia quickly transition into symptoms of schizophrenia. These plot moves and poor character developments all leave a sour taste upon leaving the cinema.

The rapid knowledge that your life is cut short, and that you will most likely be dead by the end of the day, would unquestionably put characters in the sort of nightmarish hell that the film captures perfectly.

Yet, it was only after several days had passed that I realized I couldn’t shake the disturbing feeling that Old left me with. I recognized that many of the suffering developments of character, dramatic shifts in character arcs and the unexplainable state of confusion, culminated to generate the dreamlike quality of the film. The rapid knowledge that your life is cut short, and that you will most likely be dead by the end of the day, would unquestionably put characters in the sort of nightmarish hell that the film captures perfectly. Had any of these, what I first thought of as discrepancies, changed, I would not experience the same eerie feeling that I do when I reflect on Shyamalan’s Old. Not to mention that the casting of Trent as he ages is impeccable, the actors are literally older doppelgangers of each other. Plus, the film’s message of the importance of family in the face of mortality is undeniably heart-warming. 

All in all, the final verdict is that Old, although it has its flaws, some of which I’m not quite sure how much I can convince myself are intentional, is a film that deals with the concept of rapid aging as a nightmarish hell. Due to this, I’m not sure the concept could be represented more accurately than it is by Shyamalan in his sinister take on it. Therefore, Old is absolutely worth the watch. Although, as the main takeaway from the film suggests, time is precious, so one watch is more than sufficient!

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