Rating: 1.5 out of 5
Watching M. Night Shyamalan films is a daring gamble for any moviegoer. I’m not going to make the claim that each film he’s made is bad, but I might be justified in saying that none of his films are necessarily good. Sure I enjoy The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, and Signs and The Village are some childhood favorites but any hint of quality within these works is annihilated by one thing: their endings. His lasting touch as an auteur is not dazzling camera trickery or powerful existential themes but narratively outlandish twists that are supposed to send viewers out of the theater into the streets shocked, puzzled and perplexed. For his first two mainstream films (I doubt anyone has seen his debut Praying with Anger or the follow up Wide Awake) these were relatively harmless twists that implored the viewer to watch repeatedly to sniff out any hints that may have been lurking on the periphery, however, with each release these twists have become completely bizarre and unjustified, at worst as is the case with Signs and The Village they derail the entire narrative and have turned his household brand into a joke. Old does little to rectify this trajectory but it does offer some ideas that would’ve flourished under a filmmaker less concerned with the high-concept trappings of their story and more interested in the genre playpen that their high-concept has laid out for them.
The first thirty minutes or so of the film sets up the main players of the story, a group of strangers are whisked away by the resort they’re staying at to a private beach, suddenly the eldest of them dies unexpectedly and the children begin to age rapidly. Most of this time, however, is actually spent jumping through narrative hoops in order to explain why the premise is going to work over the next hour and forty-seven minutes. The biggest trouble they have is explaining why no one can leave the beach so they spend about five to ten minutes spitting out various theories as to why this phenomenon is taking place. This is really the uninteresting stuff, the most fun this movie gets is when it ditches trying to rationalize the elements of science fiction within its plot and begins actually playing with the threads it’s established. There are some grotesque turns, of the four I can recall each really worked but they seldom elevated the tension and more provide spectacle that made the otherwise predictable and somewhat drab experience worth the price of admission.
The most intense scene in this film has nothing to do with the premise of the narrative and everything to do with tactile function, a young girl climbs up a mountain, it’s a thrilling scene in spite of how strangely it’s shot, Shyamalan chooses to not film her in wides but rather retain the claustrophobic camera angles he’s been fond of working on Split and Servant, and employs liberally throughout this film. Which for the sake of stylistic cohesion worked but it did not necessarily escalate the stakes of the scene as those were already laced in the action itself. This is where the film fails, it either could have had fun with its premise or it could have devised a cacophony of misery and body horror but instead of the former, this film is never fun, and of the latter, those moments are all too few.
M. Night proves he’s capable of having a big beating heart when he needs to. There is one deeply moving scene of the central couple in the film aging out of their dilemmas and quarrels, approaching the final moments of their life. It’s a very gentle scene and though the performances in this film are generally lousy, some credit is afforded to Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps for making this scene stick. For all his sentimentalism there are scenes very much at odds with the empathy expressed here. Instead of the daughter of the aforementioned couple, Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie), receiving any depth as a character as the poor girl goes from 11 to 16 in a matter of moments we are treated to a painfully awkward scene where the rapper trapped on the beach, a man named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) begins to hit on her and confide in her. It’s a strange scene that with a more adept storyteller at the helm might have been able to scrape up something interesting given the tension within Maddox’s character but instead we are treated to one-off lines about how her brain use to see less colors and now she sees more (paraphrasing but that’s basically it). There’s just a disconnect between M. Night’s heart and his brain, some incongruence between his impulses to treat his characters with dignity and also put them through heinous and gruesome scenarios that has yet to be reconciled or dialectically exacerbated in any of his films hitherto. Not to mention the plot-holes and logic jumps, for instance if the dead cells of their hair and skin remain unchanged why is it that corpses decay so fast, are those not dead cells? Am I crazy? M. Night is making me feel crazy.
And then there’s the twist! Which takes an already flimsy premise and somehow turns it into what will certainly be interpreted by many as a political statement on vaccine testing but for this reviewer is nothing more than another Shyamalan attempt at knocking the audience out of their seats. Credit is deserved for the fact that he wants to surprise us, M. Night will pull out every single trick he knows in order to blow the minds of his audience. To genuinely set-up and then deliver a truly incredible reveal is difficult, and frankly, out of step with the current trends, the days of Christopher Nolan’s narrative shenanigans are long behind us, because it’s hard to shock people now. In an era where vicissitudes are regularly delivered to us via our phones and televisions, to blow the collective mind of an audience takes genuine work and effort, I’m just not sure M. Night is up to the task.