“You have such a beautiful voice. I can’t wait to hear it when you’re older.” —Vicky Krieps’ Prisca to her young daughter Maddox at the beginning of “Old.”
Be careful what you wish for, mom.
Ever since writer-director M. Night Shyamalan made a sensational major feature film debut with “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, his career has ridden wild swings of the pendulum, ranging from the brilliant and enduring — e.g., “Unbreakable” and “Signs” and “Split” — to the unspeakably awful, including “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.”
We hold our breath each time Shyamalan releases a new film, hoping the setup will be tantalizing and the slow build will be filled with tension and the inevitable big reveal at the end will leave us exhilarated. Maybe he’ll reach the heights again, we think.
Not this time.
Shyamalan takes a big gutsy dive off a deep dramatic cliff in “Old,” which is based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters — but despite an intriguing premise, some Hitchcockian camerawork and a few effective shock scares, this is a thudding disappointment with surprisingly wooden performances from fine actors, and some of the most excruciatingly awful dialogue in any movie this year, as when a 6-year-old kid says to a newfound friend, “We can go to the same colleges together and become neighbors with mortgages.” Wait, what now?
“Old” kicks off with Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), their 11-year-old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and their 6-year-old son Trent (Nolan River) arriving on a tropical resort for one last vacation. Unbeknownst to the kids, Guy and Prisca are about to split, but they’ve agreed to withhold this information from the children until after the trip. Not long after the family has settled in, the resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) tells them of an amazing private beach on the other side of the island that most other guests don’t even know exists — but he likes them so he’s letting them in on the secret.
Two other families come along on the trip. There’s a renowned doctor named Charles (Rufus Sewell), his much younger, selfie-obsessed wife Chrystal (Abby Lee), their 6-year-old daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey), Charles’ aged mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) and Agnes’ dog, and really M. Night, you’re going to bring a dog into this impending nightmare? And we have Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who is a psychologist, and her husband Jarin (Ken Leung), a nurse.
The island is absolutely breathtaking, with lush green foliage on one side of the crystal-clear waters and jagged red rocks on the other side. But soon after the group arrives, stuff starts happening.
A lot of stuff.
A naked and quite dead blonde floats right into young Trent, and that brings about the appearance of Aaron Pierre as a rapper with the stage name of Mid-Sized Sedan, I kid you not. Mid-Sized Sedan parks himself (sorry) with the group, who can’t help but notice he keeps bleeding from the nose even as he maintains he just met the dead woman last night before she was dead and he saw her swimming “like Michael Phelps,” but he’s not sure what stroke she was doing because “I don’t watch the Summer Olympics.” OK.
This is when the weirdness really kicks in. All three kids suddenly age into adolescents and then teenagers, with Alex Wolff now playing Trent, Thomasin McKenzie as Maddox and Eliza Scanlen as Kara. “Something is going on with time on this beach,” says Jarin. No s----, Jarin. In another howler of a line, Prisca says to her daughter, “I don’t know what’s happening … sweetheart, but for now I have another swimsuit in my bag and maybe you should change into that.”
“Old” devolves into scenes of grotesquery and questionable taste, as when Trent and Kara, who still have the emotional intelligence of children, sleep together and Kara gets pregnant, and when another character’s bones keep cracking but heal before they’re reset. Other developments are just plain odd, as when Charles blurts out lines such as, “Do you know Jack Nicholson did a film with Marlon Brando?” (Yes, it was called “The Missouri Breaks,” and while it was something of a mess, it’s clearly superior to this near disaster.)
At times “Old” plays like an overlong episode of “The Twilight Zone,” only with a much bigger budget and location shooting. (Perhaps it might have worked better as an intimate, psychological set piece.) Shyamalan uncharacteristically has a couple of characters pretty much figuring out what’s going on well before we get the Big Reveal, which is admittedly compelling and weirdly enough makes for a better conclusion than the setup. (It’s usually the other way around in these tricky types of thrillers.) By then, though, it’s too late. The film has sunk under the weight of the flat performances, the stilted dialogue and the arbitrary “rules” of the island. Not even Mid-Sized Sedan could turn this gibberish into a cohesive hit.