Old (2021), the Power of Off-Limits Tropes, and Building a Story

I’m often drawn to bad movies like a moth to a flame. I would rather snark my way through a piece of trash than sit in awe of genuine art. That’s just how I’m wired. So when my wife convinced me to watch one of M. Night Shayamalan’s most recent messes on Netflix, my finger was on the my remote’s “select” button faster than you can say “Mid-Size Sedan” (That joke only makes sense to people who have watched this movie.)

Old, adapted from a Belgian graphic novel called Sandcastle, find a group of vacationers whisked away to a super-secret beach away from the regular resort, which is surely not ominous at all. Before long, they discover that the fantastical properties of the minerals surrounding the beach are causing their cells to age at a rate of 2 years per hour.

The movie is not very good: the dialogue is hokey, the effects are iffy, the characters act like idiots. It is mostly body- and psychological-horror as most of the adult beachgoers have some kind of ailment: a tumor that grows to the size of a volleyball before our eyes, epilepsy, early-onset osteoporosis, and early-onset dementia. But if you know anything about it or care to hazard a guess, you can probably glean why I’m addressing the movie here.

Because this is a family getaway, three are three kids on the beach: 11-year-old Maddox, her 6-year-old brother Trevor, and their new friend 4-year-old Kara. Before anyone understands what’s going on, Trevor’s voice is cracking and Maddox is filling out mom’s extra swimsuit.

This is a shocking, provocative development that is also totally necessary for the movie to exist: there’s nothing interesting about watching adults “age” at an advanced rate, but to have it dramatized with the kids suddenly rocketing through adolescence really sells the premise of the movie. Something has already been lost: years of development and innocence. In addition, only the kids stand a chance at surviving to the next morning, should the party fail to escape the evil beach.

There’s absolutely no point to doing this movie without there being kids on the beach, and when you have the kids on the beach, it is incumbent on the storyteller to examine that. Where are they at, mentally and emotionally in their development? It would be a little icky to depict them as purely being psychological children in increasingly adult bodies, so the movie tosses in some clunky but needed dialogue about how they can feel their interior selves developing. They still don’t have the life experience to go along with their outer appearances, but their “thoughts” we are told, become more complex and intricate as they grow. They express themselves like very dull, not-quite-there adults.

Which is to say, we are supposed to not be completely repulsed when Trevor and Kara start sexually experimenting.

It’s a very fine line to walk, and a really good movie would have a hard time with it, and this is not a good movie, so I’m relieved to say that it’s not more cringe-worthy or narmy than it is. It’s rough, but in a way you can see coming from a mile away in order to brace yourself, and when it’s over there’s just a lot of relief that it’s not worse. It’s not explicit or lewd, and there actually is a bit of emotional resonance to it when tragedy strikes. You can feel the movie going “Obviously, we had to go there” as it prepares to move on.

Within the community that I write for, age progression (and regression) is a bit of a controversial subject, for the exact reason why those clunky “my thoughts have more colors now” lines had to be included in the screenplay to this movie. There’s something very objectionable about the idea of a young person in an older body or a mature person reverting to a very young body. Even though I have used some of these tropes in one form or another, I can certainly sympathize with people for whom it is a totally off-limits zone.

There are things I wouldn’t write, but I do often note that there are few concepts that I think are completely off the table in all possible contexts. The world is often a dark and twisted place, and sometimes writing must reflect that and address it. Controversial, taboo ideas have power, which is what makes them worth examining: it is only in clumsy, careless or malicious hands that they become wretched and unstable. Even if this movie is not very good, it does the age progression thing more or less correctly, as I would want it to be done.

If age progression is too risque for some members of a crowd that likes to read TG Fiction, why then does this movie exist? Why 13 Going On 30, why Big, why Freaky Friday? They succeed in an “Only Nixon Can Go to China” way, thanks to their Hollywood magic. Even a lurid thriller like Old is mainstream enough that it’s not going to get gruesome with these ideas, and it becomes a safe, secure place for the concept to play out. Mainstream audiences will cringe a little, but all in good fun. It’s different here than in the fiction you consume online, which is usually unmoderated and unfiltered. You want to make sure the content you enjoy is the fictional, textual version of “safe, sane and consensual.” You may not want to read about a fictitious sexual assault, and you may not want to read about the fictitious corruption of minors.

Which is fair, again — it’s just interesting the role that context plays in this. When I hear that an idea is considered unacceptable to someone, I think okay — but the idea exists, so is there any merit to the idea? Some situation in which it’s worth telling a story? Consider Pulse, which is based around a premise that most people cannot tolerate: a young gay man swapping into a female body to kinda-sorta entrap hetero-identifying males. It’s a gross idea, but the movie knows it and judges Olly for it, in the same way it judges its male character who is grossed out when he learns the truth about the girl he’s been with. You can feel however you want to feel about it, but the movie exists for a reason and I find it interesting. And the same is true of Old, despite its failings.

The movie is not very good — the best I can say is that it milks all of the body-horror aspects in a way that is occasionally enjoyable and only sometimes too cheesy for life. Because the action is condensed to a single day on the evil beach, there’s not really any time to reckon with what could be the thoughtful and heartbreaking aspects of watching your children/parents age rapidly before your eyes, the realization that time is fleeting and you often don’t have as much of it as you’d like, and the reality that our bodies (and minds) eventually fail us. It has no time to unpack any of that, so it ends up as a cheesy slasher.

Spoilers below

There’s one other facet of Old that caught my attention, which is the tacked-on twist ending, mandatory to the point of self-parody for M. Night Shayamalan. It turns out the beach is being used for medial experimentation and observation as the “resort” is a cover for a pharmaceutical company. They’ve offered treatments to each of the patients for their ailments and use the beach as a way to observe the long term effects: the result of this outing is that they’ve come up with a virtually permanent cure for epilepsy. This is pretty much the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, and I once watched a movie where one of the people trapped in an elevator was The Devil (okay, I watched that one multiple times, it was so bad.) We’re probably supposed to think about The Greater Good, and wonder if the bad guys are really all that bad, but this seems like a dreadfully inefficient and unscientific way to test medications: one that involves murdering, by proxy, numerous innocents. It’s very unlikely to produce usable results.

Endings are important. They have to make sense with the context of the story, resolve it (or leave it pointedly unresolved) and satisfy the audience. They should surprise, yet remain consistent with what has come before, which is a hard balance for any writer. Usually when I have an idea for a story, my next step is to try to envision what the end of it is and how to write the story with an eye toward it. Given that the end of Old is not the end of Sandcastle, that could not be the case here, and hence M. Night takes his usual detour to the Twilight Zone. The tone of this big reveal is virtually incompatible with what we have just seen, making it all seem like it’s just a very unfunny sketch comedy.

I point this out because — I must admit — this is not so unlike an ending that I have planned for a story that I currently have in progress. Several gripes that I have with this particular ending could easily apply to what I have planned, should I execute it: the out-of-nowhereness, the “our main characters were just pawns in a bigger plan,” aspect. It cuts shockingly close. I was forced to think, if it’s this bad here, would it be any better when I do it, if I do it?

This goes back to what I said earlier: nothing is truly and irrevocably “off the table.” Not if you’re thoughtful about how you do it. This isn’t a license to go wild, but a reprimand to think hard about what you’re writing and what it all means. In my case, I think I’ve got it right: the “reveal” doesn’t attempt to re-write, but hopefully deepens, what you have read, once the character arcs are resolved and we feel ready to move on. It’s more of an epilogue than the final part of the story, which is a small but significant distinction to me. And lastly, what I’m trying to say isn’t some hackneyed ambiguous homily about the greater good, but something that I, personally, would want to take aim at, that would help contextualize the entire adventure.

Long story short, I might be cocky enough to think I’m a better writer than renowned Frightmaster M. Night Shayamalan. I think very hard about what I write, what it says, and how to build toward it. At my age, I could probably have written The Sixth Sense, but he could never have done Cat Fisher.

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