Contains spoilers for Old.
Old is the new chiller from director and screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan who is very well known for his twisty plots and rug pull endings. Fans who go to the cinema for that will not be disappointed.
Inspired by the graphic novel Sandcastle, by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, Old sees a family on a dream holiday get taken to a secluded private beach which they discover is causing them to age very rapidly. But how? And why?
Well, that’s not revealed until the end of the movie. Here we break down what happens and what it all means.
Who Dies in Old?
In short: everyone except Trent and Maddox, the now grown children of the family we begin our journey with. But characters die in different ways and that’s significant. Old is thematically MASSIVE. It essentially attempts to sum up the entire human experience in one movie, indicating a variety of ways a life could go – with twists and turns of course.
Rufus Sewell’s Charles is a doctor with racist tendencies and his rapid dementia sees him become violent. He murders rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), tries to kill Guy (Gael García Bernal), and eventually is killed himself by Prisca (Vicky Krieps), who stabs him with a rusty implement giving him super-rapid blood poisoning. His mother has already died of what seems to be a heart condition at the start of the movie.
His wife Crystal’s (Abbey Lee) calcium deficiency causes the most horrific deterioration scene in the whole movie; her bones crunch and become contorted into hideous and unnatural shapes as they crack and then heal too quickly. It’s a medical condition, sure, but there’s an implicit judgement of Crystal in the background. The beautiful, much-younger wife of Charles is positioned as being overly fond of her looks and as she starts to age and her body lets her down, she hides in a cave in the darkness rather than be with other people.
Crystal’s daughter Kara goes from being a little kid to a teenager, is pregnant, and immediately loses the baby (harrowing). Later she tries to climb her way to freedom but falls to her death.
This is a doomed family: a disjointed group who essentially all die horribly and alone, as opposed to the family we meet at the start. Mum Prisca is thinking of divorcing Dad Guy; she’s been having an affair, but both parents love their children fiercely and ultimately love each other too.
Only Prisca and Guy are given a ‘good death’ – they live out the minutes of their lives together. The couple reunite and solve their differences, row with each other and their children but eventually make peace with themselves. Though she has lost the hearing in one ear and his vision is severely impaired, they sit together on the beach at the end of their all too short lives and agree there is nowhere they would rather be than together.
Third couple Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) have narratively significant deaths. Jarin attempts to rescue the group by swimming around the coast, but despite being a strong swimmer he doesn’t survive. This death emphasizes that the group has tried everything and can’t escape. Meanwhile Patricia dies of an epileptic episode. This becomes very significant later in the movie when we understand the drugs she’s been given have prevented an episode from happening for 16 years (more on this later).
What’s the deal with the rapper?
The first people at the island are a famous rapper (according to young Maddox) with the stage name Mid-Sized Sedan (real name Kevin) and the woman he is with. She has taken a swim (naked) and later washes up dead, sparking the first wave of conflict on the beach as racist Charles immediately accuses Kevin of murdering the woman.
As a catalyst this works narratively and comes loosely from the graphic novel Sandcastle though in Sandcastle the man is an Algerian Jeweler rather than a Black rapper.
We do wonder though, why, when his companion swam out into the sea he wouldn’t have been a bit more bothered about that and wouldn’t have asked the others for help as soon as they arrived? Also her body doesn’t appear to be especially decomposed when she washes up (while she decomposes very rapidly once on the beach).
Any thoughts about what’s going on here? Let us know in the comments.
So what is actually going on with the beach?
Electromagnetic material surrounding the beach is causing cells to age incredibly quickly – at the rate of around a year every half an hour. The kids are still growing so their aging is more obvious than the adult characters. The adults don’t get grey hair, according to a throwaway line, because hair and cells are dead and so aren’t affected – the same reasoning why they don’t all suddenly have very long hair and fingernails.
Though the film has a strong existential and allegorical angle there is actually, in theory, a real world solution – as in, the answer is ‘science’ and not ‘magic.’ This is why there are no fish in the water on the beach, and why it’s significant that when Trent and Maddox emerge from the other side of the coral they suddenly see a school of fish. The explanation for why they can’t just leave the way they came is that reversing the rate of aging very quickly causes an enormous shock to the system (like resurfacing too fast from deep sea diving), which causes them to black out before they can get anywhere.
So why on earth has the holiday resort actively decided to send people – and these people specifically – to suffer a horrific fate on the beach?
Turns out the resort is really an incredibly elaborate front for a pharmaceutical company…
What does the pharmaceutical company want and why?
This pharmaceutical agency discovers the beach and sees the potential for whole-of-life medical trials to be carried out in just over a day. In theory these trials mean vital medicines can be tested incredibly rapidly for efficacy and also for side effects. Okay, not terribly reliably – medical trials don’t tend to involve observing patients from a distance with no actual lab tests and checks, and the beach is hardly a real-life adjacent or controlled environment. But this is the logic.
Candidates are selected who are having treatment for various specific conditions already. Prisca has a tumor which she thinks is benign, and it’s through her that her family is selected. Others on the beach with them also turn out to have conditions.
The facility has arranged all of the families’ travel and accommodation and taken their passports away from them – there (supposedly) is no evidence that they even left home, which is how the pharma is able to carry out its plans without being caught.
The system is flawed (it’s obviously massively morally flawed and also doesn’t hold up to medical scrutiny either since it’s hardly a meaningful test when it’s on individuals whose bodies don’t behave at all like regular people, but we digress…). One of the employees points out how unsound it is to put test subjects with neurological disorders in with those with conditions that do not affect the mind. Charles killing Mid-Sized Sedan and stabbing others rather interferes with the results.
On arrival guests are given specially mixed cocktails supposedly based on their preferences and dietary requirements – these cocktails are drugged with whichever experimental new treatment the lab wants to test.
Another possible hitch: surely treatments aren’t usually one dose and then you’re done for your entire lifetime? But different rules apply here, hence the children needing to eat lots of food to account for their changes in body mass but the grown ups who stay at roughly the same weight don’t have the same issue.
When the twist is finally revealed, we learn that the events we have been watching are part of trial number 43, and the team are celebrating a victory – the epilepsy drug given to Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a success and stopped her from having a seizure for 16 years. (Just as well Charles didn’t murder her first.)
How do Trent and Maddox finally escape?
For a time it actually looks like they haven’t escaped. M. Night Shyamalan’s nefarious surveiller who has been watching the island the whole time is convinced the two have drowned.
Thank goodness, though, that they have not. While we know countless families before them have died on the island, it still would have been almost too unpleasant not to spare these two. For a start we’ve been with them the whole movie, they’re our focal characters and all of the different actors who play the two as they grow keep us hooked. But these are all children – 11 and six at the start, who’s lives really are being stolen from them. They are not sick. They are not instrumental in progressing medical research. No fancy drugged cocktails for the kids, they are literally collateral damage – loose ends to be tied up. Kara has plummeted to her death but the now grown up Maddox and Trent (Amon Elliot and Embeth Davidtz) are the last hope.
And it turns out to be another child that is their salvation. Trent remembers that he never translated the note that his young pal Idlib (Kailen Jude) gave him in their special code. With frankly nothing more pressing to do than await his death, adult Trent decides to take a look. The amazing Idlib has given him a clue about his uncle not liking the coral. Turns out the tunnel of coral provides the sort of casing it requires for them to be able to get away from the force of the beach without immediately blacking out.
What about the diary?
The diary left by a previous islander is key to the ending of the movie, avoiding having to waste the audience’s time with police incredulity.
Back at the resort having escaped the beach, the now grown Trent spots a man he’d met when he was six and playing the (narratively handy) game ‘what’s your name, and what is your occupation?’ This guy, he remembers, is a cop.
The diary documents all the things learned by another victim of the beach and the families that were there during that trial. It documents the names of everyone on the beach, as well as the things this person – who, like Trent and Maddox, was a child when they arrived – learned during their last days. The cop is able to quickly cross reference and find that everyone on the list is a missing person, missing at the same time.
Maddox and Trent get their happy ending (kind of) – they are able to expose the dodgy pharma company, prevent any further victims, and are airlifted away after saying a sad and grateful farewell to Idlib, who is very much still a child.
We do need this ending. The film as a whole is incredibly bleak, and giving these two a chance to save the day is a tonic. Old is careful not to present this ending as too cheerful though. In the flight away from the resort Trent talks about contacting his aunt and when asked about his reaction he replies:
“How would you feel if a 50-year-old man called and said he was your six-year-old nephew?”
They are free and they are alive, but what will happen to Trent and Maddox now is a different story.
Old is out now in cinemas.