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‘Old’ Film Review: M Night Shyamalan’s Rug-Pulling Routine Is Getting, Well, You Know

Poorly-written characters struggle with ill-defined terrors in a muddled mess of a thriller

The gulf between M. Night Shyamalan’s good films and his bad ones is now so broad that it seems impossible to believe that they’re made by the same writer-director, were they not so aggressively similar in so many other ways than quality. To say that “Old” is better than “Glass” is not much of a compliment, but it’s also woefully inferior to “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” much less “The Sixth Sense,” whose success and twist-ending structure he will likely never live down.

Adapted from “Sandcastle,” a 2010 graphic novel by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, Shyamalan’s latest indeed features a whole lot of mystery, misdirection, and a last-minute surprise that upends everything the audience thinks they know. But the filmmaker’s diminishing capacity for recognizing naturalistic human behavior once again presents a problem when the time comes for audiences to relate to, much less care about, characters put through the paces of another elevator pitch that he never develops into a compelling story.

Vicky Krieps, woefully underused (in American films, anyway) since Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” plays Prisca Capa, a museum curator who takes a family vacation with her husband Guy (Gael García Bernal) in order to soften the imminent blow of their separation to their children Maddox (Alexa Swinton, “Billions”) and Trent (Nolan River).

The tropical resort attends to all of their most specific needs, starting with personalized cocktails passed out upon arrival, and on Day Two, a special trip to a remote beach where they can frolic in luxury and seclusion. Joining them for the excursion is Charles (Rufus Sewell), his youth-obsessed wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee, “Lovecraft Country”), daughter Kara (Kylie Begley), and mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), with Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird, “Avenue 5”) and her husband Jarin (Ken Leung) joining them a few minutes later. But shortly after the Capas and their shuttle bus companions arrive at the idyllic cove, they begin to notice a strange transformation, first in Maddox, Trent, and Kara, and then themselves: They are growing older, by years, in just a matter of minutes.

Unable to exit the beach by the same path they entered because of a mysterious pressure that makes them black out before ejecting them back onto the sand, the group quickly grows frantic to find a solution, especially after a woman’s body washes up in the surf, and a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre, “The Underground Railroad”), who was there when they arrived, explains that she had accompanied him there the day before.

As the children grow into teenagers, their thoughts and feelings grow more complicated, leading to some challenging problems for their parents, who begin to suffer from their own degeneration from prematurely aging. But after realizing that at least one member of each party in the group was suffering from some ailment or illness, the Capas attempt to make one last-ditch effort to escape — or, in lieu of that, to figure out why this resort would choose to bring them out to the beach, knowing that they were going to die.

There is almost certainly a metaphor to draw from the fact that, in addition to adapting the graphic novel and directing, Shyamalan plays a character whose accidental carelessness ends up having a huge impact on an experience that’s otherwise pretty elaborately thought through. But the bigger problem with “Old” is that its characters feel like they’ve been engineered by some kind of algorithm in a screenwriting program whose “conflict” dial is turned up to eleven without being given any examples of real human behavior for context.

Among the ensemble stranded on the beach, there’s a museum curator, an actuary, a thoracic surgeon, a nurse, and a psychologist; each of them might as well have been named for their profession, because Shyamalan not only assembles them with mechanical precision but also filters every situation in the story through the expertise they afford, guaranteeing a comical spurt of exposition at every turn to assess how or why circumstances have changed. Guy’s actuarial number-crunching is by far the most tedious, but Patricia’s impulse to encourage the others to talk about their feelings runs a close second, and there is no believable circumstance in which a sentence should start with the phrase “I’m not a forensic pathologist,” even if you’re attempting to explain the improbable speed at which a body is decomposing.

More reasonably, these characters all seem to have feelings and secrets that they don’t want to share simply because the movie doesn’t want to reveal them — which would be fine if they eventually figured into the plot or their character’s journey, or even if their other behavior was even slightly more believable. In a moment straight out of O. Henry, a husband loses his sight while a wife loses her hearing, so neither of them can evidently, say, get up and run away when a clumsy man with a knife attacks them on an open beach. Moreover, once a clumsy guy with a knife reveals his instinct to attack people at random on an open beach, maybe that’s the time to get the knife out of his hand, and then perhaps to keep an eye on him so that another violent incident doesn’t ensue.

As is increasingly the case in his films, Shyamalan is too preoccupied by the machinery of his ideas to give them a sniff test before unleashing them on characters that we should, or could, care about, if only they made choices that were remotely identifiable.

God love her, Krieps struggles with the material, but the deficiencies in her performance aren’t her fault; for a movie obsessed with the too-swift passage of time, it fails entirely to capture what connected Prisca to Guy, much less what their problems were prior to being stranded on the beach. García Bernal similarly does his best but can’t give their relationship a depth or history that it was never given on the page.

The other adults largely function to nudge forward the plot with speculation or analysis of what’s going on in this wormhole of aging, although as the cast’s lone “Lost” veteran, Leung navigates his way around underdeveloped mysticism better than the rest. Meanwhile, as the brother and sister who advance into young adulthood over the course of an afternoon, Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie capture an effective if sometimes exaggerated portrait of grown-up bodies contending with brains and hearts that are struggling to keep pace.

The eventual explanation that Shyamalan provides for why these people are on this beach operates on the same level as the big reveal in “The Matrix” — sure, it sounds bad, but is knowing the horrible truth better than living a fairly helpful lie? Then again, after being justifiably roasted for killing the hero of his “Eastrail 117” trilogy in a few inches of water, perhaps Shyamalan didn’t have the stones for another ending that would both fulfill his merciless, narcissistic design and prompt audiences to revolt. Regardless, the whys involved in “Old” are ultimately as meaningless as just about everything else in this silly film; it feels guaranteed to deliver a good time as audiences return to theaters, but it won’t survive a second of scrutiny if they try and think about it after the rush of the experience wears off.

That said, Shyamalan has become so consistent with his surprises that, at the end of the credits for his films, a title card should read, “M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN WILL TWIST AGAIN.” Whether viewers find his style still enjoyable or simply predictable, “Old” underscores an important truth — namely, that at this point, it’s definitely nothing new.

“Old” opens in US theaters July 23.