Last Friday morning I went to the 11:10 am screening of M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie “Old” in downtown Pittsfield. For now, the only way to see this film is to head to your local cinema, making what’s “Old” feel practically pre-COVID new again.
You’ve probably seen reviews of “Old” written by actual film critics, and I certainly appreciate other cinephiles’ perspectives. (My favorite review of “Old” is right here, given how it mentions Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.) However, my goal is to touch upon the bigger questions Shyamalan raises as the plot gives way to his ending. Translation: spoilers ahead.
“Old” was inspired by a Father’s Day gift to Shyamalan from his daughters: the 2013 book “Sandcastle” by French documentary filmmaker Pierre Oscar Levy and Swiss graphic novelist Frederik Peeters. Shyamalan noted, “Its themes of aging had me thinking about my parents and my children and how quickly it all goes by. From the moment I read this, I was changed.”
Indeed, both the novel and the movie depict members of three different vacationing families enjoying a day at the beach on a private island. But things in their secluded cove get weird fast when a corpse floats into view and the children start to age rapidly. Importantly, each family has at least one person with a pre-existing condition. Think multiple sclerosis, hypocalcemia, blood clotting disorder, mental illness, and epilepsy, for starters.
Key to the storyline too is that no one can leave this oceanfront resort. Despite a cardiothoracic surgeon, a psychologist, and a nurse among them, the rapid aging on top of their socially distant location seals most of their fates. The beach itself causes cells to age in accelerated fashion, while would-be escapees run into an overwhelming magnetism that result in blackouts. A Blue Zone this is not.
In Shyamalan’s world, as opposed to the ending in “Sandcastle,” there is a perfectly logical explanation for what’s going on. The tourists are unknowingly part of an unethical, unscientific experiment involving a pharmaceutical company. The company has no interest in informed consent; its business model relies on lightning-fast clinical trials of unsuspecting sightseers.
Of course, this depraved biopharma sees itself as doing the greater good in the name of rapid cycle quality improvement for the masses. The beach is simply a beautiful laboratory, supporting this fictional Internet of Bodies manufacturing capacity to make therapeutic drugs that normally take eons to bring to market. Call it Operation Warped Speed.
As all gerontologists know, the best-selling “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” tells Rabbi Harold Kushner’s true story of his son Aaron’s life cut short by the progressive genetic disorder called progeria. This disease is extremely rare; it remains incurable. To think that anyone would ever conspire to inflict this fatal syndrome onto someone else is unimaginably horrifying.
Still, the timing of this film is remarkable, not only because the pandemic slowed us all down, but because we do live in an aging society. We also live in a time of accelerating technological transformation and precision medicine. It is no secret that transhumanist thinking is proliferating, and not just each time a billionaire flies into space. No less than The World Economic Forum has implicitly endorsed aspects of transhumanism’s agenda under the banner of “human enhancement” and more recently via “The Great Reset.”
In the end, “Old” successfully reveals Shyamalan’s penchant for seeing dead people, being mortal, and often feeling trapped, as climate change increasingly evokes. While “Old” is not his greatest work, Shyamalan’s cinematography and actors are a welcome sight for sore eyes. Not exactly “Back to the Future,” not quite “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Old” is a dash of “The Twilight Zone,” with a sprinkle of “Survivor” and a dollop of fan favorite “Speed.” Tempus fugit, godspeed.
Sarah Wright is a writer. She posts her work at Social Work in Progress.