Shyamalan: Old (2021)
Like The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film is a study in agesploitation – the way that ageing can become a form of horror when compressed and condensed. Both films take place in highly circumscribed, locked-down environments, leaving their characters with little to do but observe the aging process as it’s accelerated into the realm of horror. In Old, that premise is paired with the effects of the global pandemic, producing an eerie vision of the ways we have all aged prematurely, and have all been reminded of our various ages, in the wake of COVID.
The action takes place entirely on a tropical island, and starts with a brief prologue at a high-end resort. We meet Guy and Prisca, a couple played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps, who have treated their children to one last family holiday before they announce their impending separation. Pandemic motifs abound here, from discussions of risk management, to boasts about completing 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles, to anxieties about property and real estate. Early in the family’s stay, the hotel manager approaches them and invites them to spend the day on an exclusive private beach on the far side of the island. They’re driven there by a hotel employee played by Shyamalan himself, who deposits them near the beach, and instructs them to walk through a narrow gap between a massive rock face – the only way in.
From here, we move into the film proper, which takes place almost entirely on this remote beach, walled in on all sides by an enormous igneous edifice. From the outset, the beach feels like two pandemic experiences in one. On the one hand, it’s totally isolated, turning the family, and the other people who join them for the day trip, into an ersatz bubble. On the other hand, it’s idyllic – exactly the kind of place you’d want to socially distance. After so much time in lockdown, the vista of this beach is cathartic in and of itself, even if its spatial sparseness suggests it’s still somehow indebted to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
After a series of unusual phenomena, this bubble of tourists gradually realise that the beach is causing them to age rapidly – and this is the central premise of the film. At first, they only register this accelerated growth as an “intense cranial pressure, like being deep underwater,” and then as a series of slight shifts in inflection and attitude. One of the most pervasive experiences of lockdown, for me, was observing micro-changes in the appearance of my bubble and myself. At times, during the pandemic, it felt possible to see other people age in a day, and equally possible to feel yourself growing day by day. During our last lockdown in Sydney, I was acutely aware that my hair had grown a little more each time that I washed it.
Shyamalan starts with this subliminal sense of ageing, paving the way for a film that largely shies away from grotesque shifts in appearance in favour of a more naturalistic approach to age, albeit compressed into a single day. For the first part of this process, it’s unclear whether the characters are ageing at all, or if we’re just seeing the premature ageing of the pandemic, since there’s nothing to suggest that the film doesn’t take place in our current time. When Guy and Prisca first arrive at the resort, they’re greeted by a youthful hostess with veins that ripple and bulge with the varicose volatility of a much older women, while Shyamalan favours shots of the couple silhouetted against the window of their hotel room, where they seem at least twenty years older. The sunlight is also too harsh in these early scenes, parching any residue of youth, and imbuing all of the cast with the aged texture of lifelong beach-dwellers.
Even when the beach starts to operate on the bubble of tourists, it only registers, initially, in terms of an unusually volatile sense of their own skin. Skin is usually a given in mainstream cinema, both in terms of colour and texture, but it’s mutable and ethereal here. Before the characters start to age, their skin already evokes all the colours and textures it will display in a lifetime, which are mirrored in the mercurial hues of the rock face overlooking the beach. In such a sparse environment, this rock structure is notable for never resolving into a stable visual field, and so preventing other textures from stabilising in turn. Against the rock, skin seems fluid, especially since Shyamalan situates most of the critical early moments in its crevices and shadows, while often deploying POV shot from the rock face itself. When the bubble finally realise that the rock is causing them to prematurely age, Shyamalan signals their awareness with a long pan that blends and superimposes their faces across its textures.
Eventually, Shyamalan starts to show the process of ageing more overtly, although this raises a considerable formal challenge – how do you evoke ageing in a single day? Shyamalan’s first answer lies in some of the sharpest compositions of any of his films. Starting with the decentred typography of the opening credits, he resorts to off-kilter perspectives that emphasise the peripheries and angularities of bodies – the growing-points – even as they prevent us seeing people in their entirety for long periods of time. These compositions emphasise the spaces between bodies as much as bodies themselves – and, more uncannily, the first subliminal sense that the spaces between bodies has narrowed ever so slightly. They also move the film away from single shots, instead evoking networks of gazes and proprioceptive overlaps, as if to capture how much ageing is a matter of collective perception.
This visual field quickly makes the bubble (and the audience) hyper-sensitive to the fringes of their own bodies – the places where growth is most tangible – especially since their bodies heal as quickly as they decay. One character has a calcium deficiency that rapidly angles bones up through her skin, another goes mad and slashes at any skin around him with a knife, and a third develops a tumour that grows to the size of a watermelon, but is almost impossible to treat with surgery, since any wound heals up as soon as it’s incised. All of the characters thus seem to experience the two extremes of COVID in a single body – healing unexpectedly quickly and succumbing unexpectedly quickly. Watching the film took me back to those earliest days of the pandemic, where every body felt poised on the cusp of both extremes.
However, the most powerful ageing moments take place in precisely the ellipses in space and time that have typified the pandemic – breaks in the spatiotemporal continuum that films like Locked Down and Host have framed as the strange space between sleeping and waking. Old is driven by sudden transitions when the characters emerge from unconsciousness, unsure of how long they’ve been unconscious, and even unsure of the extent to which they’ve been unconscious. Shyamalan captures these transitions through long pans back and forth, or 360-degree pans – camera movements that evoke spatial continuity even as the characters feel space and time slipping away from them. This captures one of the most enduring paradoxes of the pandemic – the more we were confined to a single space (like the contained space of the pan shots), the more space seemed to shiver and dissolve, taking time along with it too.
This drifting unconscious space doesn’t just mark the transitions between different ages, but the parameters of the beach itself. As soon as the bubble of characters realise what’s happening, they try to escape, but they can’t travel too far in any direction (through the cliffs, up the cliffs, out to sea) without losing consciousness. Appropriately, it’s unclear if these are spatial or temporal thresholds – whether there’s only so far they can go or whether (as some of them speculate) there’s only so much time they can take. In each case, however, leaving plunges them back into unconsciousness, either killing them or accelerating the ageing process. Like lockdown, this beach is easy to enter, but very hard (almost impossible) to leave.
With this arsenal of formal devices in place, Shyamalan is able to evoke the psychological toll of ageing in quite an uncanny way. In a more literal version of a regular survivor narrative, all the personalities and pathologies accelerate along with the bodies that house them, producing subliminal shifts in bodily language and relational cues, until every interaction feels provisional. It’s about this time that night falls, and the beach abstracts into patterns of light and dark that evoke the many stages of feeling old, but in compressed and condensed bursts of affect: “I don’t feel the same – it’s like my mind is changing too. I’m getting many thoughts at the same time.” While the oldest woman on the beach is the first to succumb physically (she dies in the first hour), the most lingering trauma turns on the two children, the only ones to survive until the next morning, evoking a pandemic that kills the old but feeds on the young.
Like most of Shyamalan’s films, there’s a strong twist here – it turns out the resort is a front, and that the employees are all members of a medical team working to accelerate cures for major diseases. They choose tourists based on physical and psychological ailments, put medication in their food, and then watch them on the beach to see whether their treatments produce changes over a lifetime. This is pretty eerie in itself, but the real horror lies in the abrupt shift from the beach back to the headland above it, where the driver, played by Shyamalan, is calmly observing the events from a distance, and making notes on the bubble.
This is one of the starkest spatial shifts in Shyamalan’s career, so it makes sense that he’s commandeering it in front of the camera as well. Moving from the beach to the headland forces us to acknowledge that two different spatiotemporal fields, and existential textures, might exist in contiguous physical zones. This has been the real horror of the pandemic –radically different lifeworlds unfolding in adjacent areas due to differences in administration, compliance, and the evolving contingencies of the virus itself. No surprise, then, that the operation of the island, horrific as it is, represents a kind of wish-fulfilment – a mechanism that could conceivably test the efficacy of a COVID vaccine over a single lifetime in 24 hours, even if there might be some collateral damage along the way. And Old leaves us suspended between the horror of the pandemic and the horror of this particular solution to the pandemic, hanging over the beach like the helicopter that takes one last look, in the final shot.
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