‘Old’ Serves Up Stale Shyamalan Formula
The twist endings are no longer surprises
Friday, July 23, 2021
Companion viewing (twists that work)
"Don't Look Now" (1973)
"The Sixth Sense" (1999)
"Donnie Darko" (2001)
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has a new movie called "Old" and guess what? It has a twist ending, but the director’s surprise endings have now become a familiar trope.
Shyamalan is something of a one trick pony whose trick entertained briefly. "The Sixth Sense" (1999) truly took audiences by surprise on multiple levels. But perhaps the success of that film made Shyamalan and the studios think that every film needed to have a similar surprise factor.
His two following films, "Unbreakable" and "Signs" milked the formula to relatively good effect but it's been a case of diminishing returns ever since. Some of his films have been atrocious, like "The Happening," while others have just misfired but with occasionally high points (most notably James McAvoy's performance in "Split" and the grandparents in "The Visit").
But Shyamalan's penchant for a requisite twist now it elicits groans like a bad pun. For his latest film "Old," the trailer sets up the freaky conditions facing a group of tourists on a secluded beach. A dead body shows up and rots within hours, kids suddenly grow up, and no one can escape. So everyone on screen and watching wants to know what the heck is going on? The real twist turns out to be that Shyamalan doesn't care why all that is happening and never intends to explain the bizarre passage of time that occurs at this seemingly idyllic spot. That's because all the plot shenanigans prove to be a MacGuffin because what Shyamalan really wants the film to be about is a bigger social issue.
What that means for the story is that nothing is important except for that final reveal where Shyamalan's "message" is delivered and we are meant to gasp in an "aha" moment of isn't that brilliant. Only it's not.
Characters are drawn with all the depth of Col. Mustard and Professor Plum in the Clue board game. The little boy even goes around asking each person their job so that we know exactly how each person will fit into the plot dynamics. We have a doctor who can perform a surgery, a nurse who can ascertain age, a risk management person to calculate odds, a scientist who know how long it takes for a body to decompose ... well you get the idea. And since the trailer gives away so much of the plot (the dead body, the kids getting older, a pregnancy, and more) there is never much tension or even shock reveals for the audience as the film plays out.
I have not read the graphic novel "Sandcastle" on which the film is based, so I'm not sure how the original premise has changed in the move to the screen.
But what Shyamalan serves up creaks as it painfully delivers ridiculous plot exposition. Shyamalan allows characters to "explain" things — like why is it that the people are aging but their hair is not getting longer — but the information exists only to take up screen time and distract you because it serves no further purpose. This is sci-fi where the filmmaker doesn't want to be bothered with either the science or the fiction. So while you are trying to figure out what could be causing these phenomena, Shyamalan just doesn't care because it's all in service of a warning he wants to sound at the end.
Some directors, Alfred Hitchcock being perhaps the most notable example, manage to make brilliant careers out of being a one trick pony. Hitchcock was the master of suspense and while we knew what kind of film to expect from him each one managed to surprise us in some way so that his formula still engaged and impressed us. In Shyamalan's case, he has not, at least recently, been able to make that once successful formula work for him with the same flair as it did earlier.
"Old" refers not just to the fate of the characters but it describes the creaky, tired feel of the film. As my friend noted as we watched the film, it seems to be crying out for a Mystery Science 3000 treatment. So just wait for MST3K version to come out and it might actually be an entertaining rather than aggravating experience.
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