Life’s A Beach
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Warning: Very minor spoilers which are probably in the trailer.
I usually don’t get on all that well with the films of M. Night Shyamalan. He’s obviously very talented but I find the majority of his films (I curiously have actually seen the majority of them) either way too obvious from the start or just with lousy endings. It’s been said he makes extended The Twilight Zone episodes and that’s not a bad analogy... but without the punch of some of the old TV show, I think. However, that being said, I really liked three of his previous movies... Unbreakable, Lady In The Water (which it seems nobody except me liked) and Devil (which he wrote but didn’t direct). Well, finally, we can add another movie I really responded to with his new film, Old.
Old is based on a graphic novel called Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters. I’ll do my usual here and say that I can’t tell you how good or respectful of an adaptation it is because I’ve not read it... but, love him or hate him, Shyamalan is such a powerful artist that I’m guessing there’s a lot of his personal stamp on this.
The film starts off with a husband and wife, Guy and Prisca, played by Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps, who are taking their son and daughter for a three day holiday in a luxury resort before breaking the news to them that Prisca wants to separate from her husband and, also, that she has a tumor growing which may threaten her life. Then, on the second day, they along with a few other couples and families are offered a day on the special, secret beach by the resort manager. However, when they enter the beach, they find they can’t leave it without blacking out and that... everybody has started ageing at an accelerated rate. Their new mission is to find a way off the beach before they die or succumb to various illnesses (which amounts to the same thing). It’s said the director was also inspired by Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel and that kinda makes sense, although there’s a very real reason why the people here can’t leave the beach, rather than the social politeness which strands them in a place for weeks because they don’t want to be the first to leave, like in the Buñuel movie.
That’s the set up and, although that’s really all I will tell of the story, there’s actually not much I could reveal anyway in the way of spoilers. This one’s strength is that there’s no big twist to the plot. Everything is in the opening pitch, so the film doesn’t set itself up for a disappointment. However, if you are watching attentively, you will get wind of the other, side mystery fairly quickly. As soon as the family arrive at the resort and are given special cocktails and food based on their requirements, you probably know something’s up. Then, when the ‘driver’, played by the director of the movie in yet another one of his extended cameos at the start and end of the picture, gives them all too much food to take with them and refuses to actually take them onto the beach himself, you will know that something sinister is afoot. I’m glad to say though, even despite recent world events which should have tipped me off, that this minor mystery side helping of “Why?” was a surprise but made perfect sense when you get to the end of the movie. And at no point is the actual mystery of the beach explained as anything other than a naturally occurring phenomenon that just ‘is’... which is nice.
The film is slowly paced and it’s just right for this kind of material, as the characters gradually struggle to make sense of their situation. The director also makes some nice choices by choosing to highlight the artificiality of the resort hotel when the actors inhabit that space, as a counterpoint to the majority of the story being set on a stretch of open beach. For example, there’s a wonderful shot near the start where we are looking in at the main characters from outside the windows of the hotel room and the windows consist of vertical slats making big rectangles in which Shyamalan can compartmentalise the mother, father and the children. The camera slowly tracks back and forth outside these windows and then, on the third pass, we have Vicky Krieps head in close up suddenly looming into the shot as she has moved out onto the balcony when the camera was busy tracking the other way. It’s a really nice moment and a wonderful use of space and camera movement. I was very impressed with this shot, probably more than anything else in the film and I don’t mean that to the detriment of the remainder of the movie at all.
The film starts off as the usual 'family flung into a situation they need to overcome' but, as more people give in to various afflictions and consequences of the unnatural ageing of their bodies, the film takes on the sinister aspect of a horror film and, due to the seemingly supernatural properties of the beach, I am certainly tempted to call this one a horror movie. There are two spectacular ‘kills’ towards the end of the movie which certainly pack a punch... one involving the breaking and healing of limbs while the other involves a rusty knife. It’s all good stuff and certainly gives the film an edge to it.
Also, the actors in this are all great and there are some good people here other than the main leads... including the likes of Rufus Sewell, Emun Elliott, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Francesca Eastwood (daughter of Clint, it turns out). And one of the strengths of the movie is that, for the most part, the characters they play are mostly likeable so, when the horror element starts to creep in, you are really hoping these people will survive.
The film also has an effective score by Trevor Gureckis which starts off pretty minimally at first but kicks in at the appropriate times later in the film when called for. Alas, there’s been no proper CD release so I guess I won’t be hearing that score separate from the movie any time soon.
My first real criticism is that one of the people on the beach who has been on there a lot longer than the others seems to show no real sign of ageing (which makes you think something else may be happening) and the relative ages of various characters can be hard to keep in your head because, as in real life, people age at different rates. The explanation about the lack of growth of hair and fingernails is gotten out of the way fairly early on though (or I might have been worrying about that issue for a bit). The other problem I had was that the ‘justice is served’ style conclusion to the movie seemed a trifle optimistic in terms of expecting authority figures like the police buying into the concept behind the film but, well, sometimes you have to go the ‘shorthand’ route rather than waste another ten minutes of film to make a point, I would guess. And that really isn’t a spoiler about the conclusion of the movie, by the way... but I just can’t say why.
Other than that, though, I’m absolutely delighted that, with Old, I’m finally able to get behind an M. Night Shyamalan movie again. This is one I will actually be grabbing on Blu Ray at some point because I think my parents might like this one... despite the fact that it does tend towards the very grim by the end of the film. There’s a lot to like in this and the director does a really good job with it. I may read the graphic novel at some point, I think.