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'Old' review: M. Night Shyamalan's latest has an intriguing concept, but flawed execution

Thomasin McKenzie, left, and Alex Wolff in a

Thomasin McKenzie, left, and Alex Wolff in a scene from M. Night Shyamalan's latest movie, "Old." Credit: Universal Pictures

PLOT A family is trapped on a beach that compresses a lifetime of aging into one day.

CAST Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell

RATED PG-13 (gruesome and bloody images)

LENGTH 1:48

WHERE In theaters

BOTTOM LINE Intriguing concept, flawed execution.

What would you do if your whole life was about to fly by in a single day? That’s the question at the heart of "Old," the latest horror-chiller from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. Based on a graphic novel from 2011, "Old" plops a half-dozen characters onto a mysterious beach that begins aging them at a terrifying clip: Nearly 50 years will pass before nightfall if they don’t escape. For the children among them, it means the loss of precious years; for the adults, it’s a death sentence.

That’s a terrific premise with just about everything you’d want in a movie: a ticking clock, a band of strangers in crisis, existential dread. Shyamalan, however, has long been an unreliable director, capable of both masterstrokes ("The Sixth Sense") and wild flails ("The Last Airbender"). His latest effort is neither, but lands somewhere in between.

Things start out promisingly enough as a lovely-looking family arrives at the Anamika Resort, a schmancy getaway in the tropics (the film was shot in the Dominican Republic). Guy and Prisca Capa, nicely played by Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps, are here to relax and frolic with their preteen daughter Maddox and 6-year-old son Trent, but the parents are keeping secrets: One, a divorce is coming, and two, Prisca has an illness that's yet to be revealed.

All this clouds their jaunt to a secluded beach. "I only recommend it to certain guests," the hotel manager purrs à la Mr. Roarke in "Fantasy Island." Actually, the Capas will share the shore with quite a few guests, including a stressed-out surgeon (Rufus Sewell), his trophy wife (Abbey Lee) and their little girl. A nurse named Jarin (Ken Leung) comes along with his epileptic wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird). There’s also a famous rapper (Aaron Pierre) whose name, Mid-Sized Sedan, may be the best thing in this movie.

As inexplicable events begin to occur – sudden deaths, fast-healing wounds, rapidly growing children (each played by two or even three actors) – the group tries to piece together the puzzle. This should be the fun part, but Shyamalan frequently fumbles it. The characters seem driven by the screenwriter’s needs: They wander off to make crucial discoveries or go suddenly hysterical to create conflict. What’s more, the scenes don’t flow: Gruesome shocks and chilling revelations often are followed by strangely calm dialogue. There is one touching depiction of a now-elderly couple, resigned to fate, watching the slowly darkening sky.

The Shyamalanian twist in "Old" is thought-provoking but highly complicated, and it still leaves several questions unanswered. These might nag at you while the closing credits roll to the tune of "Remain," an R&B ballad written and performed by Saleka Shyamalan, one of the filmmaker’s daughters. Personally, I’m hoping for a debut album from Mid-Sized Sedan.

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