I’ve mentioned before that my taste for the movie-theatre experience has declined severely since the halcyon days of the 1970s when I would go to the movies 250-300 times a year. The decline really began in the mid-’80s with the gradual disappearance of real movie theatres and the degradation of the experience offered by multiplexes with their food courts and lobbies full of loud arcade games; inside the auditoriums, the curtains vanished so that that moment of transition between a bunch of people chatting in a big room and a focused audience sitting in reverent silence as the movie began no longer occurred. The chatter would continue into the movie and it was more like hanging out in someone’s basement rec-room than attending the narrative ritual which cinema had once represented.
By the 2010s, I had to drag myself out to a theatre, preferring to stay home with my ever-growing library of movies on disk. Certainly, that was no real substitute – the screen was so much smaller and it was too easy to be distracted – but at least I wasn’t being bothered by inattentive audience members who no longer seemed to understand what made the movies so special, that strange experience of something communal which was also utterly personal and isolated. In recent years I was down to a handful of visits, then I had my protracted recovery from surgery and the onset of the pandemic with its lock-downs and social distancing. And somehow more than a year-and-a-half passed with no movie-going at all.
My records indicate that the last time I went was for Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (2019). I went with a friend and last week that same friend prompted me to overcome my deep resistance and once again buy a ticket. I wouldn’t have agreed for just any movie, but this was the opening weekend for M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, so I felt a kind of personal obligation to go. I like Shyamalan’s work and I feel compelled to counter in my own small way the endless tide of vitriol which has greeted almost all of his movies since the ecstatic reception given The Sixth Sense in 1999. In fact, the only other movie I saw in a theatre in 2019 was Shyamalan’s Glass.
I won’t say a great deal about Old other than that I liked it for the most part (there’s one visual tic which occasionally annoyed me – a tendency to push in to extreme closeups a bit too often). Yes, there’s a twist ending (apparently not in the source graphic novel by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters) – it’s dramatically valid, though it does dissipate some of the film’s surreal mystery by providing a (partial) grounded explanation. But that said, Old has a sustained mood of quietly unsettling horror and an excellent cast which commits to the strange story about a group of tourists who find themselves on a beach on a Caribbean island which, by some inexplicable force, traps them and ages them by a year for every half-hour they remain.
Naturally, their initial concern is with finding a way off the beach, but gradually their attention turns to the process of aging; parents see their children growing so quickly, yet remaining childlike and ill-equipped to cope with their own bodies’ maturing urges. Having disappeared for a short time, a boy and girl so recently only six years old reappear with the now-teenage girl five or six months pregnant. And twenty minutes later, this premature teen gives birth with even more traumatic consequences.
For one character, desperation gives way to violent madness, while for others personal conflicts lose their power and advancing age brings with it a new calmness and acceptance. While the aging of the adult characters is handled well, even more impressive is how Shyamalan manages the accelerated growth of the children, using oblique angles to fool our eyes as the young actors are replaced by their older counterparts, allowing us to adjust even as the kids’ parents fail to recognize them for a wrenching moment. As a narrative conceit, the accelerated aging allows Shyamalan and his cast to compress the emotional transitions of a lifetime into a short space – parents’ hopes and fears for their children giving way to the reluctant acceptance that their kids must have their own independent lives while the kids need to learn and understand the limitations of their parents, these seemingly all-powerful figures who are eventually revealed to be flawed and human just as the kids are themselves.
Not surprisingly, Old is getting the usual critical response for a new Shyamalan release – split almost evenly on Rotten Tomatoes between the by-now seemingly exhausted knee-jerk disparaging of the filmmaker and some unexpectedly positive responses which acknowledge his particular talents, albeit somewhat grudgingly. It never ceases to amaze me that he keeps managing to make movies distinctively his own despite the pressure exerted by critics and audiences who, for some reason, really seem to want him to be someone else.
As for the actual theatre experience – my friends and I naturally bought our tickets on-line ahead of time. Choices were limited by the social distancing requirements, with each occupied seat separated from the next by three empty ones, with another three empty seats in the row in front of you. As we went to a Saturday afternoon screening, these restrictions were moot; in addition to the three of us, there were only six or seven other people in the theatre. The odd thing was that, while we had to pass through two separate “check points” – a guy outside the theatre with a clipboard taking names and phone numbers in case patrons had to be contacted about possible exposure to someone infected with Covid, and another inside who asked for proof of vaccination – there was no one anywhere checking our tickets. We could’ve just walked in without paying.
We were the first people in the theatre, the few others arriving after the movie had already started and talking loudly among themselves. I glared back at them a few times, working myself up to the point where I’d be able to shout “shut the fuck up!”, but they finally settled down and it was possible to concentrate on the movie. The whole thing was almost as surreal as what the people on screen were going through on the beach and I can’t say I’m eager to go back again. It’ll take another movie that I want to see as much as I wanted to see the latest Shyamalan … and those are few and far between these days!