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M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Old’ wastes a killer premise with a grab-bag of ideas

M. Night Shyamalan flits. He flits from idea to idea, from tone to tone, from one style to the next, always in search of the next whatever but never staying long enough to ground himself in any of them. Never was this more true than in his latest film, Old.

It’s a grab-bag of a movie — a little schlocky horror, a little existential dread, a little philosophical reflection, a little mystery thriller, a little social satire. Any one of these might have provided the framework for a decent film, a film with some staying power. But instead, it’s like a tasting menu: You might find individual items tasty, but they don’t add up to a full meal.

And that’s a shame, because Shyamalan starts with a killer premise.

Imagine a beach on which everyone ages more rapidly than normal. Much more rapidly. The dozen beach visitors eventually figure out that a single hour on the beach is the equivalent of two years of normal life. And they can’t escape.

This is ripe for horror exploitation, as the oldest become decrepit and die, the middle-aged get sick and whatever illnesses they have progress much faster, and the kids go through puberty at alarming rates. The sometimes grotesque nature of the human body and, of course, the decaying flesh of the living and the dead are featured in Old, but not in any overpowering way. It’s horror gone mild.

The metaphoric nature of the premise has the most potential. The sensation of life whizzing by is a common observation of just about everyone but the young. What parents haven’t felt like their kids grew up overnight, and what senior citizens haven’t looked back at their lives and wondered how it all could have happened in a blink of an eye.

The beach-goers’ predicament is ultimately not that much different than ours. Shyamalan doesn’t develop this observation too deeply, but the characters’ realization of what’s happening does force at least some of them to reflect on their lives in rather profound ways.

And in a kind of time-lapse way, the kids grow up not only physically but emotionally, passing through the stages of maturity from worshipping their parents to despising them to appreciating them over the course of the day. This metaphoric plane is by far the strength of the film, and if Shyamalan had set anchor in this thematic bay, he might have had his strongest film since The Sixth Sense.

Instead, Shyamalan rushes on to other issues. Hey, what about group dynamics? Do the people work together or pull apart? With a multi-ethnic group, do rising suspicions fall along racial lines? Are individuals willing to risk their lives for the sake of others? Is this Sartre’s idea that hell is other people or the opposite? Again, all rich issues to explore, but Shyamalan gives them only the briefest of glances.

Other character and plot questions abound. Why is this happening and why are they there? Why do they blackout whenever they try to leave the beach? Why does one character’s nose keep bleeding? Why does another periodically slash with a knife? Why does another go into hiding? What’s that shiny object on the hill? What’s that kid’s coded message say?

Unfortunately, Shyamalan is determined to answer all these questions and then some, likely so that the audience doesn’t feel robbed, I suppose. But in so doing, he’s robbing us of the power of the premise. In the now-expected Shyamalan final act twist, the mystery does indeed get solved, but the power of the truly mysterious washes away with the tide.

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