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What the New Movie 'Old' Gets Right About Aging

Horror aside, the M. Night Shyamalan film makes important points about getting older

By Ellyn Lem

The 2010 graphic novel "Sandcastle," from which M. Night Shyamalan based his new hit film, "Old," opens with a quote from the French writer Alphonse Allais: "It is impossible to tell you my age; it changes all the time." The message is an apt beginning for both the book and the film, since the plot of each centers on a small group of tourists visiting a secluded beach of an unnamed island that speeds up the aging process — dramatically. One hour there constitutes two years of life, and no one is spared.

A man looking scared, still from the "Old" film trailer. Next Avenue, Old movie, M. Night Shyamalan
In "Old," Gael Garcia Bernal is among the island's visitors who get very old very fast  |  Credit: Universal Pictures/YouTube

You can pretty much guess where the film is going, and it's not pretty.

The question at the heart of "Old" is whether the film contains any deep reflection about aging or is merely trying to scare audiences.

Literature has displayed a fascination with the speculative possibilities of quickening or reversing time for years.

Oscar Wilde's classic, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," introduced the idea of resistance to the effects of the aging process by having a portrait age instead of Dorian himself. F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," (made into a Brad Pitt film) has its title character go backward in time.  A current popular novel, "The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue," by American fantasy author V.E. Schwab, also takes a magical realism approach; its protagonist is able to resist time and change permanently, which readers find is a Faustian bargain, with more harm than good.

The Messages About Aging in "Old"

The question at the heart of Shyamalan's adaptation of "Sandcastle"(written by Pierre Oscar Levy and illustrated by Frederik Peeters) in "Old" is whether the film contains any deep reflection about aging or is merely trying to scare audiences about physical changes to the body over time and the absence of control over that process. 

On the surface, it seems to be more of the latter.

None of the group members stranded on the beach welcome this sped-up version of evolution, despite temporary perks for the young children who temporarily experience more developed bodies that are ready for adult experiences. However, they all recognize the morbid reality ahead: their lives will end much quicker than any of them planned.

As one of the children complains, "There are so many memories we didn't have." 

On top of this type of realization, the film doesn't spare details of physical mutability.

Chrystal, the "beauty" of the group (played by Abby Lee), is shown late in "Old" to look like a Cindy Sherman clown, almost as if her plastic surgery features have melted her face into a monstrosity. Most characters soon display some vestiges of transformation — age spots, gray hair, wrinkled faces and more. Viewers are not shielded from the reality that becoming mere skeletal remains will be their shared destiny.

What's Beneath the Surface

Perhaps due to the inclusion of his earlier films' gory details, critics often label Shyamalan as a horror filmmaker, which he vehemently resists. This pigeonholing could detract from larger messages that he wrestles with, beyond his movies' shock value.  "Old"does have such messages, but they lay beneath the surface of this gripping thriller with its gorgeous tropical scenery.

Shyamalan, 50, has indicated that part of his interest in making "Old" (he writes, directs, co-produces and even has a cameo in it) stemmed from his parents getting older and seeing his roles with them switched.  

Certainly, the central imagery of the "sandcastle" in both the graphic novel and the film suggest the impermanence of life. We are all busy building our own "castles," but in the end must let go and recognize the limited time we may have and how temporary those structures can be.

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Besides this imagery, the film adds additional meaning about aging with a less nihilistic ending than the graphic novel.

At the beginning of the movie, the tension between Guy Cappa (Gael Garcia Bernal), an actuary, and his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), a museum curator, can barely be contained due to ongoing conflicts that may lead to the breakup of their marriage. On the beach in an early scene, Prisca chides Guy for probably not even knowing what book she is reading. 

What 'Old' Gets Right

Suffice it to say that the end of the movie, as the couple deals with age-related vision and hearing problems, they no longer bicker about minutiae. And they learn to adjust to aging as best as possible. Despite the devastation around them, one says to the other, "I want to be here right now."

"Old" does leave viewers with something clear and positive by its close.

The closer the couple come to their mortality, their largesse grows — as does their capacity for empathy and understanding. That's one of the things "Old" gets right about aging. International research showing greater happiness as many people age often suggests that adults are more content later in life. They let go of petty grievances and reprioritize what is important.

Competing with these ideas about growing "old" in the film are other themes introduced by Shyamalan's signature plot twist at the end (you may remember "The Sixth Sense").

As new topics, such as the mercenary nature of many pharmaceutical companies, come into play, the audience's attention gets pulled in different directions, leading to less cohesion of a central focus. But unlike the bleak "Sandcastle," made more haunting by its stark black and white images, "Old" does leave viewers with something clear and positive by its close.

Prisca's daughter Maddux (played at various times by Alexa Swinton, Thomason McKenzie and Embeth Davidtz) starts the film singing happily in the car on the way to the resort. At the end, she's singing to her aged mother, "I will remain."

Through this circle of song, we are reminded that life never really ends as long as one person's impact can be carried on by another. That legacy shall always "remain."

Ellyn Lem
Ellyn Lem is a professor of English and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Waukesha and the author of "Gray Matters: Finding Meaning in the Stories of Later Life." Read More
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