M. Night Shymalan. There, I’ve uttered the forbidden name.

Mister Night Shymalan is something of an enigma to me. Most people know of his trajectory, making a spectacular debut in 1999 with The Sixth Sense and then working his way steadily downwards ever since. There have been a lot of films over the intervening years, from the halfway-decent to the downright unwatchable. Lady in the Water? The Happening? After Earth? I had reached the point where I vowed I’d never watch another one.

And then I started hearing good things about Old. ‘A surprising return to form.’ That kind of thing. Hmm. Could that be right? So, inevitably, here I am, back at the cinema, giving him one more chance to surprise me.

To be fair this is one of his better efforts, though a five star review in the Guardian seems wildly over-enthusiastic. This sub-Twilight Zone story is all about a bunch of people experiencing the holiday from hell. (We’ve all been there.) Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife Prisca (Vicky Krips) have been going through a bad patch, possibly because she’s discovered she has an inoperable tumour, so they’ve gathered up their kids and headed off to a fancy beach resort in search of a little quality time. The resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) tells the family about a ‘special’ beach they might like to visit, a place where they won’t feel so crowded, so the following day they climb aboard a mini bus and head for it. (Sadly they fail to notice that the bus is being driven by M. Night Shymalan, which should perhaps have been a warning.)

They arrive to find that there are quite a few other holidaymakers there, all of whom seem to be suffering from one kind of malady or other. A dead woman is found floating in the water. And then Guy and Prisca notice that their two kids appear to be ageing very rapidly…

The Shymalanisms dutifully ensue in mind-bending fashion. There are deaths and a birth, transformations and deteriorations. Charles, a doctor (Rufus Sewell), loses his marbles and runs amok with a knife. Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) has an epileptic fit. People bleed and contort and drown. This film is not short on incident.

And yet… and yet… many of the old problems are still here. Shymalan’s script (based on a graphic novel by Pierre-Oscar Lévy) is clunky, while his characters often speak and act like no human beings on the planet ever would. And then there’s the inevitable ‘twist’ ending where Shymalan tries to explain what’s been going on, but I still cling to my theory that, no matter how weird the goings-on, the internal logic of any story should remain rock solid – and here it really doesn’t. Plus… call me old fashioned but is it really wise in the midst of a global pandemic to point the finger of blame at the devious nature of scientists? I think not.

Maybe the problem is mine. Maybe I just don’t get M. Night Shymalan. But as I said, while this is one of his better efforts, that really isn’t saying very much.

Sorry – and maybe cancel that holiday booking, before it’s too late!

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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