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What Is the Twist in ‘Old’?

The premise of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest horror film seems straightforward enough, but it’s Shyamalan—surely there’s something else going on here

Universal/Ringer illustration

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film is called Old. It’s a good title for the film, because in it, people get old. But instead of getting old at a normal rate, these people—who are spending their day on a remote beach, it should be noted—get old at a very scary rate (an hour equals seven years, we’re told). The trailers for Old are both terrifying and gross: dead bodies floating in dirty water, girls who began the day as 6-year-olds becoming pregnant, Gael García Bernal getting wrinkles. What is going on here? And more specifically, because this is M. Night Shyamalan: What is the twist? That’s what we asked our (normally aging) staff, and here is how they answered. (Note: None of them have read Sandcastle, the graphic novel that inspired Old; not that we expect Shyamalan to adhere completely to the source material.)

Miles Surrey: In the opening seconds of the Old trailer, Gael García Bernal’s character is bemused by the hotel’s brochure stating that children aren’t allowed at the beach. It’s a bizarre policy, to be sure, but the family nevertheless defies it. You know the rest: The characters get trapped on the secluded beach and suffer some vaguely ominous consequences related to rapidly aging. The viewer is supposed to be sympathetic to their plight, but could this nightmare have been avoided by simply following the rules?

As the pandemic has slowly reopened some corners of society, we’ve seen an influx of unruly customers at their absolute worst, whether they’re getting kicked off airplanes or making a server cry. Old wants you to focus on the scary beach, but perhaps the real menace is a family on vacation who believes they’re entitled to do whatever they want. (Are we sure they aren’t staying at the White Lotus resort?) M. Night Shyamalan’s latest twist is that the customer isn’t always right—and if hotel guests aren’t careful, they will be slowly digested like they’re caught in a giant Venus’ flytrap. That’s because, in a coastal spin on The Ruins, the beach is a living organism with an appetite for nosey tourists who should know better. And with how customers are behaving these days, the Old beach is staying very well-fed.

Andrew Gruttadaro: I’m pretty sure this is about Instagram. (Stick with me.) Vicky Krieps’s character states in the trailer that she found this secret beach “online.” Soon after that, we’re specifically shown a character on the beach taking a selfie:

Meanwhile, there are enough IRL stories about immaculate, stunning locales being destroyed by people looking for Instagram-ready settings to constitute a subgenre. (The Ringer wrote about this very trend in 2016.) With our despicable, clout-chasing behavior, we’ve rapidly aged so many natural places on Earth—the beach in Old is merely exacting its vengeance and turning the tables. How does it end? I don’t know, maybe with everyone deleting all of their social media accounts? I haven’t gotten that far. But considering that M. Night once made an entire movie about the BEE POPULATION, I definitely think I’m right here.

Aric Jenkins: What can I say about this trailer besides the blatant absurdity of the editor layering in “People are blacking out this way!” just as the only Black guy in the movie appears on screen. I’m not going to lie, I get Jurassic Park vibes from this island. Something about the locale seems so familiar. And we all know how old dinosaurs are. But this isn’t a time-travel film—the Sacred Timeline here is clearly moving forward at a rapid pace. So what shocking reversal is M. Night about to hit us with this time? I’d bet good money he walked into the Universal Studios offices and said, “It’s Jurassic World 4 meets Planet of the Apes.”

That’s right: Eons on this island fly by so quickly that all of these characters—as well as all other biological species present—go extinct, only to restart the entire evolutionary process. Dinosaurs roam the earth again! Eventually a new batch of humans from the outside world comes across the isle; they speculate this remote location, against all odds, harbors a unique protective climate that shielded this group of dinosaurs from the meteor 65 million years ago. But wait! There lies the remains of decomposed human skeletons. Surely our early ancestors, perhaps an ancient seafaring people looking for new trade routes, met their fate at the hands of these rare velociraptors? But my god … there’s also Oakley sunglasses buried in the sand. And iPhones. You maniacs! Modern humanity has been here already. All the time.

Michael Baumann: It can’t be easy being M. Night Shyamalan, trying to come up with new plot twists after so many of your movies had plot twists. Given Shyamalan’s well-documented Sixers fandom, I searched the trailer for clues that this could be an allegory for Ben Simmons’s refusal to shoot jump shots, but found none. So I’m just going to forge ahead with the most obvious answer: Old is about the inevitability of death and aging, the only solution to which is not to fear it.

Why don’t they just walk off the beach? They can’t, obviously, because the beach isn’t real. It’s a mass delusion, or a social experiment, or the result of alien abduction—the specific cause doesn’t matter. But whatever supernatural or metaphysical force is keeping them on the beach will be solved only when Vicky Krieps learns to stop worrying about the passage of time and no longer fears both her own mortality and the impending adulthood of her kids.

Daniel Chin: Old is a film about the sands of time, which is rapidly running out for this group of unfortunate strangers. But as it turns out, not all of these poor souls found this isolated beach by merely stumbling upon it online. This beach is a vacuum in time and space that functions as a sort of 24-hour hourglass for its inhabitants, and so these vacationing families and Instagram models were lured there for a scientific experiment conducted by an organization that specializes in this sort of paranormal stuff.

The twist to Old is that it’s one long, elaborate Lost spinoff centered on Ken Leung’s Miles Straume. Go back and watch the trailer again and you’ll see that Leung is oddly singled out for knowing more about the beach than he’s letting on—the Hereditary kid seems absolutely certain of this. Miles chose not to move on from Limbo (or whatever the hell happened at the end of Lost, I honestly still don’t know) and since his existence defies all logic, he had nothing else to do but go back to working for the DHARMA Initiative and study another mysterious beach lost in time. Yeah … that’s definitely it.

Shea Serrano: My guess is that actually it’s not the olden days—they’re all just living in a little reserve in the woods during modern times. There aren’t any real monsters, it’s just the villagers dressed up in costumes pretending to be monsters to keep the other villagers from venturing too far out into the woods and realizing that it’s modern times. (Oh, wait, shit, that’s the plot of The Village.)