Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we look at the ending of M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, Old. Yes, prepare for spoilers.
Before one steps into an M. Night Shyamalan movie, they’re already anticipating the twist ending. The writer/director’s reputation for and reliance on the swerve taints every experience as your attention is already dagger-sharp. A person cannot simply sit back and let the movie wash over them. No, their eyes are peeled. They’re clocking every detail from the jump. We never know what’s going to come back and bite these characters in the butt during the last five minutes.
Old does not have the traditional Shyamalan zag, but the movie does plop an ending designed to elicit, “Ohhhhhhhhh.”
The Plot of Old
Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are approaching their end as a couple. She’s got a tumor growing inside of her, but she’s also not going to let her medical condition prolong a marriage that was already lost years ago. It’s time for their split, but they don’t want to divorce until they’ve given their two kids, Trent and Maddox, one last happy vacation. They hope that the memories they build on this trip will buoy them through the dark times ahead.
Prisca, by apparent happenstance, stumbled on an island resort too good to be true. When they arrive, the hotel presents the family with tailor-made beverages and smiles that never stop from their staff. Because Guy and Prisca are such swell people, the resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) lets them in on a secret. A hidden beach is not too far from the hotel, where the water is miraculously clear and sparking with special minerals. If they promise not to tell the other guests, he’ll get a special driver (M. Night Shyamalan) to escort them to the location.
Of course, they agree. But when they arrive, the beach is not as isolated as they thought. The resort manager lied to them and gave directions to several other guests, too. Their disappointment quickly escalates to terror when they discover that none of them can leave. Every time they attempt to do so, a sudden pressure takes over their heads and knocks them backward. Even more horrendous, the longer they stay on the beach, the faster their bodies age. Children are soon adults, parents are soon grandparents, and grandparents are soon corpses.
What the hell is going on?
The Ending of the Movie Old Explained
Old is based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Frederik Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy. But the French comic book is much less interested in exploring the phenomenon perpetrating the aging process than Shyamalan is. Peeters and Lévy’s story only hints at some nefarious outsider interference when a person notified as “the hotelier’s son” is spotted running toward the protagonists before unseen attackers gun him down. The guests are so far along in the aging process that they can’t investigate it further before they’re dead on the sand.
Shyamalan can’t help but concoct a much more complicated ending for the movie version, with Old. After Guy, Prisca, and the rest have perished, their two surviving children, now older than their parents were when they first arrived, remember an encrypted note given to them by the resort manager’s nephew, Idlib (Kailen Jude). Earlier in the movie, before the family heads to the beach, still-six-year-old Trent and Idlib strike up a fast friendship at the hotel.
The two boys bond over cryptography and most of their notes are secret celebrations surrounding ice cream parties. However, this final communication reveals that Idlib somewhat understands the magic that hovers over the beach — or he misunderstands something to be a potential danger there. Once decoded, the secret message directs old man Trent (Emun Elliott) and even older sister Maddox (Embeth Davidtz) to the coral reef located offshore.
The siblings swim toward it and find an underwater passage that blocks the power from the mysterious minerals surrounding the beach. Above them, the hotel driver witnesses their escape attempt but believes that they drown under the coral. He reports back to his masters, and the movie jumps away from the siblings’ point of view for the first part of the ending of Old.
Spoiler Alert: Old is a Movie About an Evil Pharmaceutical Conspiracy?
The hotel is revealed to be a lure for the sick. The management seeks the chronically ill and spams their email until they bite. When they do, they serve the specially sanctioned guests various pharmaceutical cocktails. They then alert those guests of the secluded beach and drop them off so that scientists at the resort can observe how the drugs operate on the unwitting guinea pigs as they age rapidly. This allows the company to tweak their cocktails faster than the competition, igniting scientific breakthroughs that would normally take generations to develop.
Unfortunately for the evil pharmaceutical firm, Trent and Maddox did not drown in the coral tube (as is eventually depicted in the third part of the ending of Old). They return to the hotel, where Trent finds the vacationing cop he met when he first arrived. (He remembers everyone’s occupation!) He hands the man a journal written by a science-fiction writer who died years (or is it days?) before on the beach. In that book are the names of numerous missing individuals. Disturbed by Trent’s tale, the cop reports the names to his squad back home (wherever that is), and bing, bang, pow, the resort is swarming with the authorities.
At the very end of Old, Trent and Maddox are placed on a helicopter where they’re presumably being flown back to the States. Mom and Dad might be dead, but they’ve contacted their aunt, who will gladly house these new adult children. What future can they possibly enjoy in these bodies? Hopefully, they won’t focus on how many decades have been robbed from their lifespan. They should revel in R-rated movies and use their sudden voting power to instigate whatever youthful chaos they can muster.
The Old Movie Ending: Comic Book vs. Adaptation
Peeters and Lévy’s graphic novel uses the magical beach to explore the bubbling tensions between various parties. What is causing the phenomenon and who is overseeing it is not that important in the comic. It’s what the phenomenon is doing to the people and how it rapidly exposes the tensions and anxieties that are already there.
Shyamalan’s daughters gave him the comic book. The filmmaker told Entertainment Weekly that its premise deeply moved him, but he couldn’t trust his emotions because any gift from them always cut deep. As time passed, Sandcastle kept bubbling in his brain. Maybe it was more than just a sweet present.
Sandcastle‘s plot reminded Shyamalan of what worked so well with The Twilight Zone, but he felt like it was incomplete. For the movie version, he needed to add another ending to Old. His ending.
But the evil pharmaceutical climax is not the only addition Shyamalan made to the story. The comic book’s central family is not the movie’s central family. Guy and Prisca belong solely to the director. Their problems are problems that he is personally working out, not Peeters and Lévy.
Why the Ending of Old Doesn’t Work
Shyamalan sees the magical beach as a blessing for these characters, not a horror. That sounds strange, considering it means their demise, but they were dying anyway. Prisca literally, Guy and their marriage more figuratively. On the beach, as they age into oblivion they also remember the love that initially united them. This final reconciliation gives them peace and frees them of their anger and regret. It also unburdens their children.
Shyamalan loses himself in the explanations, though. If all he worked into Old were Prisca and Guy, the movie would probably feel like a more satisfying adaptation in the end. His overreaching explanation regarding the who and the why confuses the viewer from what he’s ultimately exploring. Then again, no one fondly remembers the psychologist intensely ruminating on Norman Bates’ psychosis during the ending of Psycho. The why does not matter, and it’s easily forgettable.
Old is a movie about a husband and a wife — a father and a mother — realizing that their squabbles are not as important as their love’s product: their kids. Only when they face their end and witness their children grow rapidly into adults do they recognize the wonder they’ve made as a couple. Before they go, they shed their anger. Old should have ended at that moment. The shenanigans that come next are a needless afterthought.
Old is now playing in theaters.