Corpses dissolving into bones within an hour? Diseases engulfing a victim within seconds? A body contorting into grotesque shapes?
It’s all a day at the beach in Old, the new thriller from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Glass). The story of vacationers trapped on a beach that mysteriously makes them age extremely fast, Old revels in the horrors of the human body breaking down.
But for me, the most harrowing moment occurred when mother Prisca (Vickey Krieps) failed to recognize the two kids in front of her as her children. When Prisca and her husband Guy (Gael García Bernal) came to the beach with their kids, daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) was 11 and son Trent (Nolan River) was six. But now Maddox appears to be 15 (now played by Thomasin McKenzie), while Trent (Luca Faustino Rodriguez) appears to be 11. Shyamalan’s camera captures not only Prisca’s horror, but also the look of confusion on the kids’ faces as their mother refuses to accept them as her children. When Maddox rushes to Guy and seeks comfort from her father, he can only hold her for a second, before pushing her back to take in the changes that have come over his child.
The scene perfectly encapsulates the terror at the heart of Old. Nearly every horror movie features the threat of death, some sort of monster ready to kill. But in Old, the beach threatens to take away life—the literal hours and days that one fills with the joys and pains of existence.
When Guy and Prisca discover their aged children, they realize that they have lost five years with them. They will never have those crucial parts of parenthood, the bittersweet pride on the first day of school, the petty arguments and tender reconciliations, or the heartbreaks only a parental smile can heal. As the children continue to age over the hours they have on the beach, Guy and Prisca experience one of a parent’s worst fears: that their children have grown up, and they missed it.
Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis communicate this development with deft camera movements. Early on, before anyone has noticed the aging effects, young Trent and Maddox play freeze tag with another child, Kara (Mikaya Fisher), who came to the beach with her parents. The camera recalls the style of home video, snapping from kid to kid and upping the frame rate to accentuate the children’s unpredictable movements. The footage feels like something any parent could shoot, until the camera stops floating around and holds on Kara, who stands frozen after being tagged. As the shot slowly pushes in on Kara’s giggling face, Trevor Gureckis’ meditative score builds to a melancholy swell; we realize that the little girl is getting older right before our eyes. But as the home-video style reminds us, that’s nothing unique to this beach. In every piece of video we shoot, in every photograph we take, in every moment we spend together, we are constantly, always already, getting older and moving toward death.
Old revels in the horrors of the human body breaking down.
Some Christians watching Old may dismiss the fear the movie tries to evoke. After all, we’re told throughout scripture that our life on Earth is short, that we should live toward the eternal. James 4 asks, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” We know that our lives here amount to little more than a day at the beach. Occasionally, Christians take that teaching to mean that our lives on Earth do not matter. Even those of us enjoying a fairly comfortable existence find ourselves singing “I’ll Fly Away,” longing for the day when we can quit this life for the New Heaven and New Earth.
But that approach ignores the first part of what might be the most famous Bible verse: “For God so loved the world.” We see God’s love for the world performed in the teachings and actions of Jesus. Within his short 33 years on Earth, Jesus used that time to speak out against injustice, to heal those who were suffering, and to enjoy friends and food. It’s not only Christ’s death and resurrection that mattered; his entire earthly existence had significance. How can it be any different for those of us who follow Christ’s teachings?
So while the terror of Old might fizzle in light of God's promises of eternal life, that doesn't mean that there is no resonance to be found for Christians. Like Christ, every Christian is tasked with the responsibility of caring for the world, and our time for doing so can slip away. If we don’t live intentionally, we can miss the opportunities to serve, heal, and rest, just like Jesus did.
For all of its foreboding imagery, Old also gives us insights into this reality. Throughout the film, Shyamalan employs close-up shots to capture people tightly together, zooming in on hands being held or heads resting on shoulders. He frequently employs sequences where the camera slowly spins in a circle, showing for a moment every person trapped on the beach. On a narrative level, these sequences serve to highlight the effects of the beach, as each character has aged each time they appear back on screen. But on a thematic level, the movements show how the people are all together. Even as they age and suffer, the characters live on the beach as a community.
With these shots, Old reminds us of another truth, just as important as the one that drives its horror. Yes, we are all getting older every day. Yes, we will die someday, as will the people we love. And we will mourn all that we’ve lost. But we don’t go through this alone. We live our rapidly fading lives together.
For Christians, that means every day is another opportunity to enact God’s love for the world. Our time on Earth is our chance to act against injustice, to bring healing to the sick, to hug our children, and, yes, to enjoy a day at the beach.