Let me say up front that I do not expect to see M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie, “Old,” which arrived in theaters last week, for no other reason than that I am traveling and haven’t set foot in a theater in almost two years. But in the past few weeks, I have watched its trailer over and over, enthralled by its combination of existential horror and unintended humor. The trailer introduces us to some people who become trapped on a remote beach, where they begin to age at an insanely accelerated pace. Naturally, they try to figure out what’s happening, floating theories and freaking out. This being a Shyamalan film, the trailer promises they will spend a lot of time looking confused and concerned — the same facial feat Mark Wahlberg sustained across the running time of “The Happening” — and yelling at one another, demanding explanations.
This is a familiar, Manichaean, Shyamalan-ish universe: A diverse group of bewildered souls, alone in a menacing void, earnestly playing out whatever endgame logic the scenario dictates. (It’s as though the director were compelled to continually make big-budget versions of “Waiting for Godot” — you think he can’t go on, but he’ll go on.) So we see a family on vacation, headed to the beach. The cast is soon filled out by others: a couple, a 6-year-old girl, a woman in a bikini making smoochie faces at her phone, two more men. Soon enough, the kids find things in the sand: rusted items from their hotel, cracked sunglasses, late-model iPhones. A young bleach-blonde corpse bobs toward a boy in the water. (She did not die of old age, but will decompose in hyperlapse.) Then the real aging begins. Parents confront their kids’ sudden adolescence. The 6-year-old girl grows up, becomes pregnant and gives birth on the beach. Some greater force is afoot, be it fate, God, time, Facebook or nature. Whatever it is, it clearly doesn’t care how many travel rewards points or memory-making family vacations you had in real life.
Near the start of the trailer, Vicky Krieps’s character dreamily tells her impatient children: “Let’s all start slowing down.” Then everything starts speeding up. At some point she turns to her husband and exclaims, “You have wrinkles!” (The horror!) But of course “Old” will not be an allegory about the importance of sunscreen. What we’re being shown here looks far more like a meditation on mortality wrapped in a cautionary tale about our accelerated lives — about the scariness of time flying and kids growing up too fast, of bodies going to hell and the inescapability of death, and about the ravages we’ve visited upon the Earth, which will remain blanketed in all our fancy garbage long after it has turned us to dust.
Part of what’s so captivatingly strange about the trailer is the way it takes a movie that compresses life into a couple of hours and then compresses that into a galloping two-and-a-half-minute highlight reel. Its breakneck, parodic pace calls to mind Tom Stoppard’s “15-Minute Hamlet,” in which all the most famous scenes from Shakespeare’s play are crammed (twice!) into a quarter of an hour. (In a film adaptation I once saw, Ophelia drowned herself by plunging her head into a bucket.) The title alone reduces the existential horror of the premise to a midlife freakout.
The graphic novel from which this movie is adapted — “Sandcastle,” written by Pierre Oscar Lévy and illustrated by Frederik Peeters — was inspired by Levy’s memories of childhood holidays. “He used to travel a lot to a beach exactly like this one, in the north of Spain,” Peeters told the comics site CBR. “Later, he went back with his own children, and one day he had this idea.” The beach could serve as a microcosm of Western society, “with some of its strong basic figures.” This was not a thriller, Peeters said — “it’s a fable.”
It takes a movie that compresses life into a couple of hours and then compresses that into two and a half minutes.
Shyamalan may be best known for his last-minute twists, but this was an option the “Sandcastle” authors ultimately decided against. According to Peeters, Levy had written a resolution to the story, a final twist — “but we finally decided it was useless, and would have destroyed the frightening dimension of the book.” The frightening dimension, of course, is that there is no escaping time, or death — and neither is there any simple revelatory twist in life that will explain what you’re meant to be doing with your time here.
Anyone converting this source material into a movie has a choice to make: Either you embrace the terrifying meaninglessness of our short lives, or you try to offer consolation with a resolution to the story. The trailer tips its hand that Shyamalan has chosen the latter: The last words we hear are Gabriel Garcia Bernal’s character saying, “We’re here for a reason!” Maybe we are and maybe we are not, but my time on Earth is limited, and any story that attempts to wrap up the problem of life will feel like a waste of it.
As I watched this trailer over and over, I was also, coincidentally, in Spain, where I lived for many years while growing up. I am writing from my brother’s new apartment in Madrid, which happens to be next door to the childhood home of a childhood friend. Walking my dog past her building, then meeting with her later, I find myself dwelling on the trailer, on the nature of time passing, on how compressed and accelerated it can feel. It’s strange to sit across from people you met in elementary school but haven’t seen in years. It makes you feel like the couples in the trailer, watching their spouses transform into their future selves. Time seems to pass at an accelerated rate when you return to a place periodically, over a long period, with large gaps in between.
During the past year and a half of paralysis — this remote, isolated, slowed-down time, during which some of the most privileged among us were able to isolate in safety and comfort — it could seem as if the future were on hold. (It was not.) Time felt endless and slow until, for me, it accelerated significantly. I lost my mother suddenly. After 18 months of not traveling anywhere, I came back to the city where I lost my father, where my nephews were born, where my parents’ still-living friends have become elderly. It is funny to see how much has changed, and which things never change. I met a friend at a gallery opening and mentioned on arrival that I’d forgotten to iron my dress. He seemed happy to hear this: “You’re still you!” he said.
Perhaps, for some of us, last year felt like a pause. But there was no pause. There never is. You look away for a moment, and your kid is tall. Your dog is old. Friends move away. You begin to wonder where this is all going. What’s the twist? When will it arrive? And then maybe you realize where you are, which may be a very old city — old to you and old in history, though not as old as some — and here you are, repeatedly watching a trailer for a movie, feeling a strange feeling.
Carina Chocano is the author of the essay collection “You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks and Other Mixed Messages” and a contributing writer for the magazine.