M Night Shyamalan is enjoying some serious mojo-recovery with his best film since The Sixth Sense: a woozy high-concept horror about being trapped on an apparently idyllic private beach, where time is fatally accelerated. Anyone who dislikes overheated beach holidays will probably already know the feeling of supernaturally rapid ageing, horror and face-shrivelling panic. And in fact these are the feelings I’ve often had watching some of Shyamalan’s recent films.
This is different. Old is an enthrallingly bizarre piece of old-fashioned entertainment: adapted by Shyamalan from the graphic novel Sandcastle, by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters; it is exactly suited to Shyamalan’s talent for a particular kind of audacious, ingenious hokum. But unlike his mysteries The Village or The Happening, where Shyamalan appeared to lose his grip on the steering wheel halfway through (or earlier), the enjoyably preposterous yet creepy premise is maintained to the finish line. Old is a bit like Alex Garland’s The Beach, but with a dab of Twilight Zone creepiness and an ensemble cast that Agatha Christie might have imagined. Most of all, I found myself thinking that this could have come from the original series of Star Trek – and that at any moment, William Shatner might beam down among the panicky, deteriorating beach-dwellers, phaser at the ready. Sadly for them, however, these existentially stricken vacationers are on their own.
Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps play Guy and Prisca, a stressed married couple with worries that they are keeping from their kids, six-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). They are badly in need of a holiday, and are relieved to arrive at the miraculously affordable luxury beach resort they found online, where they are told that the hotel complex’s driver (played in cameo by Shyamalan himself) can take them to a super-secret paradise beach on the other side of the island, only revealed to special guests. The beach is indeed lovely, but Guy and Prisca are disconcerted to find some other guests have been let in on the secret: super-rich rap star Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), testy surgeon Charles (Rufus Sewell) and his trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), his ageing mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) and his infant daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey). There is also a nurse, Jarin (Ken Leung) and his partner Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) who suffers from epileptic seizures.
At first, everything is glorious. But then there are sinister events. They do not seem to be able to leave the beach. And weird things are happening physically. Agnes, already frail, finds that her condition is suddenly worsening; wounds heal at an extraordinary rate. Crow’s-feet appear on faces. The kids complain that their swimming costumes are increasingly tight and uncomfortable. And one guest’s mannerisms become more than just scatterbrained. Somehow these people have found themselves at the beach at the end of the world. Perhaps these privileged wealthy consumers thought that this special place of wonderment in the developing world would allow time to stop for them, while they forgot their worries.
But maybe it isn’t really that their lifespans have been shortened to that of a mayfly. It is that a great human truth has been revealed to them – they were always mayflies. Now, in this time-lapse nightmare, they can see what has been hidden from them: mortality. And with death arriving as night falls … they had all better make up their minds what they think about the people that they love. Unless, that is, they can figure out a way of getting off the beach.
The elements of silliness and deadly seriousness are nicely balanced and although I wasn’t absolutely sure about the ending, which has maybe too neat a bow tied on it, this is just very enjoyable and I was on the edge of my seat, not knowing whether to flinch or laugh, though I did both. I loved the way the kids grew up while remaining trapped in a child’s bafflement and resentment. Time raced by while I was watching it.
• Old is released on 23 July in cinemas.