By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
M. Night Shyamalan greeted moviegoers in a special introduction to “Old,” his fourteenth film as a director. He spoke directly into the camera, welcoming us back to the big theaters with the big screens, saying how proud and happy he was creating movies for the big screen since 1999 (he tends to ignore his first two films, 1992’s “Praying With Anger” and 1998’s “Wide Awake”). And he spoke of how grateful he was that the moviegoing experience can begin anew in the wake of COVID-19.
Of course, things aren’t likely to return completely to normal soon, if ever. For one thing, Shyamalan’s completed film lists six or seven names under “Covid compliance.” That’s post-COVID Hollywood for you. The virus, in retreat but still sickening, still killing, cast an eerie shadow over what’s already a vividly off-putting narrative.
Working from a graphic novel, “Sandcastle,” by Frederick Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy, the film begins at a luxurious seaside resort, shot in the Dominican Republic (the first time Shyamalan’s filmed entirely outside his much-beloved Philadelphia metro area). We see well-heeled couples, some with children, check in, sample complimentary cocktails, bounce on the beds, survey the sports and games options.
From the beginning, the director (who also adapted the graphic novel for the screen) keeps us off balance with clever insidiousness. The camera rarely lingers on any one face, at any one distance. It twists and swirls around human motion, keeping human figures fluid, but lingering, here and there, upon odd details. A boy is shoved aside by an adult with harsh words, as other children relax in the foreground. A man’s face, his eyes too shiny.
The resort manager, his eyes and his smile a little too eager, suggests a secluded section of the beach far from the resort’s main beach. It’s only for special, select, customers, he grins. Several folks jump into the bus (driven by Shyamalan himself), and at the far end of the bus trip, follows past a trailhead, down to the beach.
The diving, swooping camera follows the folks enjoying summer fun for a while. Soon, though, we see discordances, then outright horrors. The beachcombers cannot go back the way they came. They cannot leave the beach through any means they can discover. And they’re growing older. Rapidly older. The children become adults within hours. And the adults discover, to even greater horror, how what little time they’ve got rapidly runs out.
And everyone reacts a little differently. Ken Leung, one of the most prominent Chinese American actors in Hollywood, tries to hold everyone together while he plots how to go get help. His self-determination and conviction to stay cool while others panic stands in sharp contrast to others, who simply panic. The terrifying crisis intersects with emotional baggage characters had secretly stowed, notably a married couple, Vicky Krieps and Gael García Bernal, who came to the beach, as so many people do to forget about what’s roiling under their surface for awhile, and instead found every last bit of that everything, shoved up past that surface.
The filmmakers did not, of course, intend for their narrative to comment on the real-life terrors of COVID, but their results can be taken that way. Decay. Loss of physical and mental functions. People dead long before their times, leaving others to look on helplessly. No escape. No help. We’re sitting in the dark, watching this as entertainment. Vivid, well-assembled entertainment. But waning days of the real-life plague persist out there in the streets.
And we must in the end, as our onscreen compatriots do, address our fundamental reaction to disease, decay, helplessness, and inevitable death.
“This is one supreme pain, that of being imprisoned a spectator,” wrote cultural critic Lester Bangs. And added, later in that same essay, “Decay is human,” proclaiming “the absolute possibility of loving human beings at the farthest extreme of wretchedness.”
We must face our fears, and face what makes our fears. We fear decay because society tells us to fear decay, usually, though not exclusively, to sell us alleged panacea to that decay. But we can meet fear with love, extinguish fear with love if we’re brave enough. To love. To accept decay and the death that goes with it. I took some of that from the film as I got ready to face the street again.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.