Welcome to Unanswered Questions, a series where we react to confusing movies and plot holes with a “huh?” and a “hmmph!” and maybe a “hah!” This time we have questions about the M. Night Shyamalan movie Old. Spoilers can be expected.
For a filmmaker who likes to explain everything in a neatly wrapped expository twist, M. Night Shyamalan also leaves us with a lot of unclear elements in his movies. Why’d aliens come to an ocean-covered planet if they’re harmed by water? How do a couple of teenagers have no idea what their grandparents look like? Was Mark Wahlberg trying to act so bad in The Happening? Shyamalan’s latest, Old, is just as baffling, if not more so than the rest. That’s why I’ve brought back our Unanswered Questions series to work out more than just our opinion of Old and why its ending doesn’t work.
Burning questions about the plot of M. Night Shyamalan’s Old
Some of these questions do have answers, just not satisfying ones. Others just absolutely don’t make any sense. Most of them involve SPOILERS for the movie, in case that wasn’t obvious. But Old is a movie that means to make us think about a number of ideas, and so this is our place to explore some of those ideas while also nitpicking about how those ideas are delivered.
1. How can so many guests leave no trace of where they are going?
All of the special guests to the resort in Old are lured there by the management based on their medical ailments. The resort manages to provide transportation so there’s no commercial trail to the destination. But that seems impossible to handle in our day and age. Sure, the idea of having no cellphone service in an inescapable location is as believable as it is convenient to the plot of any horror movie. But on the way to the resort and during the stay, is there no chance any of these people told someone where they were going, documented any part of the trip on Instagram, or communicated with the outside world at any moment before going missing? Mid-Sized Sedan is a famous rapper who must need to share his whereabouts with someone. The vain Chrystal is seen taking a selfie and is certainly a social media sharer. How would the resort so easily make people disappear? There is some mention of how the resort can make it look like the people never left home, but that doesn’t hold up at all.
2. Why doesn’t the kid at the resort just warn people not to go to the beach?
From what I can tell, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the little friendless resort boy who forms a brief bond with Trent. The kid, named Idlib, is the shady resort manager’s nephew, so it would seem that he might know something about what’s going on. Or that he has some interesting back story. But no, he’s just a little boy who lives on a resort with his uncle, and he constantly sees people go to a beach and then go about their lives or something. So why does he give Trent a coded message that helps Trent and Maddox escape the island? Does he know about the beach, and if so, why not just warn Trent immediately? That’s all actually a lot more innocent than it looks and is sort of annoying in its execution. Idlib writes in code for fun, not to go undetected, and his message stating that his uncle doesn’t like the coral, that’s him thinking he’s helping Trent and family avoid something the kid thought was dangerous based on his misunderstanding of what he overheard. Fortunately, the wording of the note is unnaturally so oddly phrased so Trent is able to interpret it as the opposite.
3. Why doesn’t the resort manager destroy the coral?
It’s unclear how the people who run the resort and evil pharmaceutical conspiracy found the cursed beach, and it’s also unclear how the resort manager knows about the coral being a shield against its powers. There’s mention of another time that a person attempted to escape through the coral but then they drowned. Did they know about the significance of the coral before then? Was it too recent that they didn’t make an effort to destroy the coral in order to eliminate that one potential escape option? Maybe there wasn’t an easy solution to get rid of it that wouldn’t also lead to the demolition person being stuck on the beach or otherwise killed as well. But they don’t care about people’s lives so why not just send in a sacrificial helicopter pilot with a bomb and not worry about if they make it back alive. Or use a drone. There are many options.
4. Why doesn’t anyone disarm the crazy doctor who just killed a guy?
Even before Dr. Charles manages to kill Mid-Sized Sedan, which seemed very plausible given his racist and manic responses to the rapper, someone should have thought to confiscate his knife. And after he manages to kill a man, someone definitely should have thought to confiscate his knife. Because, unsurprisingly, he strikes again later. Fortunately, this time Prisca saves her husband from a similar fate as Mid-Sized Sedan by stabbing the mad doctor with a rusty knife (whether this death makes a lick of sense even considering the lethality of maybe him getting tetanus is another question of its own). He was strong and stabby, but the doctor could have been overpowered by the others collectively. But they may just not be thinking clearly enough in the state of such high-level shock as they’re experiencing.
5. Why does Trent grow hair on his face and armpits?
Do I need to explain puberty? No, this is not about the boy becoming a man and what that means for his body. This is a question regarding consistency in the logic of the world that Shyamalan has set up for Old. Before anyone in the audience has a chance to wonder why nobody’s hair and fingernails are growing along with the aging, a character provides an answer. This is the sort of expositional dialogue we get from the filmmaker on a regular basis. He’s trying to anticipate questions by having them answered in a way that might as well be a fourth-wall break. The problem with this kind of narrative defense is that it opens up the conversation with the viewer in a way that invites more questions. So then the audience wonders, well, what about Trent’s armpit and facial hair growth? I’d say that’s just easily dismissed as still consistent because it’s a one-time effect of the body’s aging into adulthood and then that’s it. But also we could have just done without the mention of the hair and fingernails thing and allowed it to be a simple movie logic thing where we suspend our disbelief.
6. How does Kara get pregnant?
Well, you see, it starts with the birds and the bees… No, this question is simply answered: Trent and Kara have sex during their bonding moment, and she becomes pregnant with their child. It’s implied well enough that we don’t need to literally see that it happened in order for us to be aware of what occurred and not have any thoughts of immaculate conception or anything. Still, the whole sequence plays out poorly in the way Trent and Kara’s time together is intercut with other events going on at the same time. It’d have been more effective if Shyamalan gave us a lengthier time between when we see them growing closer, perhaps with that moment ending with a kiss, and then the reveal that she’s pregnant. I can only assume that the filmmaker and the rest of the production wanted to keep the thought of these two essentially still-six-year-old children having sex out of the audience’s minds. Because yikes.
7. Why doesn’t Kara say goodbye to her mother before trying to leave?
There are a lot of missed opportunities for emotional moments in Old due to the way the movie is written and paced. The death of the baby goes by so quickly that it’s almost like they should have just left out the cringe-worthy pregnancy entirely. And some characters aren’t given natural relationship moments. Never mind that Kara probably feels some detachment from her self-obsessed mother and her violently ill father, even at age six, but it still feels odd she wouldn’t let Chrystal know she’d be attempting to escape by climbing the cliff. Especially since most of the other players are present at the time. When Chrystal does show up wondering what happened to her daughter, there’s not much of a payoff there. I get it, she quickly turns back to being concerned about her own appearance and physical health, but it’s another moment that’s unsatisfactorily executed.
8. What’s the benefit of keeping the unwitting guinea pigs in the dark?
You’ve lured sick people to your resort for your pharmaceutical trials conspiracy, and you’ve dumped them on a beach they can’t escape from. Why not just let them know what’s going on? They’re not going to be able to leave anyway, so they’d have to ultimately understand the service they’re going to provide by, well, staying alive for as long as possible. Consider how many of the people on the beach die from unavoidable circumstances. Some attempt to swim away and then drown. Others try to climb out of their prison and fall to their death. At least one person is stabbed to death by a racist lunatic. Think of how much better these test subjects would be to the drug trials if they weren’t trying to kill each other or putting themselves in danger due to having no clue what’s going on? Narratively, that’d surely take away the intrigue for the audience, but realistically the operation is kind of dumb. By communicating with the lab rats on the beach, they could even administer more or different meds.
9. Is one anti-seizure drug really worth all the trouble?
Maybe we just need to take the movie’s evil Big Pharma revelation to be representative of what that industry goes through for a profit and not realistic in a literal sense. Still, we want to accept the logic of the world within the story at hand, and this just doesn’t make a lot of sense. In Old, the plot twist is briskly dealt with, but it’s one that we’re left to think too much about after the credits roll. Consider everything this company has gone through to secure this secret magic beach on an island and establish this resort and then transport and kill close to a hundred people, most of them innocent familial bystanders of afflicted targets, to find new drugs that work for various diseases and disorders. They’ve wound up with a treatment for epilepsy that curbs seizures for nearly twenty years, yet the patient still dies of epileptic seizures in the end (again, transparency could have been a benefit and resulted in delivering another dose or further experimentation). And what sort of data does this company present as proof of the medication’s effect in order to get it on the market?
10. Why not just clone the test subjects?
Hey, if Shyamalan can tack on an extra sci-fi explanation ending to his adaptation of a graphic novel, then I can add my own to his movie, right? Maybe I’ve seen Jurassic Park too much, but if you’re going to have a secret resort island with secret scientific experiments, why not go more John Hammond than George Harris, to go full-on Michael Crichton-based analogy? Get DNA samples from the afflicted persons and clone them in a lab and drop them on the beach to watch them age. Of course, this would only work for genetic maladies. Also, I understand that this idea goes beyond the point of Shyamalan’s movie, though doesn’t his own evil pharmaceutical twist do that anyway? It’s unclear what the filmmaker is trying to say with Old given the way it ends in such a convoluted revelation.
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