M Night Shyamalan is definitely not new to making films with bananas premises for his characters, and Old is no exception. Based on Sandcastle, the 2010 graphic novel by Frederik Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy, the film follows a group of holidaymakers who find themselves in a luxurious and secluded resort, ecstatic about their lucky find.
They are invited by the resort's management to visit a secret beach but upon arrival, they quickly discover there is something wrong with the place: something is causing them to age so rapidly. With only hours of their lives left to live, they are going to have to find out who is doing this to them and why, if they want a chance of making it out with any amount of life left to live.
However, unlike much of his previous work, Shyamalan does not pull off one of his traditional last-minute twists that make you question the entirety of the film you just watched. Instead, clues to the final twist are given away almost immediately. Spoilers follow.
It turns out the resort is just a front for a pharmaceutical company called Warren & Warren to run clinical trials on patients and be able to monitor how well their drugs fare throughout the entirety of human life in a matter of days rather than decades. While only Maddox and Trent manage to stay alive long enough to witness the reveal first-hand, the group pretty quickly figured out that at least one person in each group had some sort of illness.
While some illnesses play quite a big role in the characters' development, others are just a way to kill the character off and leave only the Cappa family alive till the end. But since Shyamalan does not have the best record of accurate and thoughtful depictions of diseases in his film, favouring spectacle and exaggeration over respect for those actually suffering with them every day (he caught some major slack with his portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder with Split), it's worth taking a look at how well Old fares in this regard.
We're also not getting into how the people at this pharma company can predict exactly how their patients' conditions will evolve throughout their lifetime, and figure out the exact dosage to give them to last them that long. Or even how their accelerated bodies don't just metabolise the medication immediately as soon as they arrive on the beach... anyway.
Patricia Carmichael (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird)
The character of Patricia is introduced while still at the resort and her epilepsy takes centre stage almost immediately, since she suffers a seizure during breakfast. Fortunately, her partner Jarin (Ken Leung) is a trained nurse and is right by her side ready to help her.
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder in which brain activity becomes abnormal, leading to seizures as well as periods of unusual behaviour, sensations, and sometimes loss of awareness. It's a lifelong condition that can't necessarily be cured, but seizures can be treated with medications called AEDs.
While we don't see Patricia ever reach for her purse to take any sort of medication (but to be fair, none of these people do even though they are supposed to have known illnesses), in the last act of the film we hear that whatever Warren & Warren gave her seemed to be effective in stopping her seizures for (almost) her entire lifetime.
However, Patricia's seizures do return and are the cause of her death. While epilepsy isn't a fatal condition in and of itself, there are about 1.16 cases of Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy for every 1,000 people with epilepsy (estimates vary). This comes about when a seizure causes a person to have pauses in their breathing, their airways getting obstructed by convulsions, or changes in heart rhythm leading to cardiac arrest.
The main risk factors for SUDEP are uncontrolled or frequent seizures, as well as many years of living with epilepsy and missed doses of medicine, which all seem to apply to Patricia so her death seems to overall be a plausible one, albeit probably more of a plot device to get rid of her and her desire to psychoanalyse everyone on the beach.
Charles (Rufus Sewell)
While not clearly stated in the film from the very beginning we find out that Rufus has some sort of mental health disorder he is not keen on talking about, and the general consensus is that it is schizophrenia, though it is never explicitly diagnosed. Certain situations can trigger the condition such as a stressful life, and life on the secret beach isn't the most relaxing.
Shyamalan included one major misconception about schizophrenia: it does not cause someone to be violent.
While without any medication or therapy to treat his condition, Charles's mental health was bound to deteriorate. However, his violent tendencies can be seen either as something implicit in Charles regardless of his mental health and exacerbated by his situation and lack of mental healthcare, or just another plot device by Shyamalan to introduce a threat inside the beach and help kill off some of the dead weight. The latter seems most likely.
Charles dies when Prisca stabs him with a rusted knife left on the beach, and he develops an infection that quickly spreads. As a medical professional, Charles would definitely be vaccinated against tetanus (transmitted via bacteria on the rusty knife). The other likely result would be sepsis, but neither one of those conditions spread through the body like the blackening wave that we see.
What Shyamalan might have been aiming for with the visual is a condition called necrotizing fasciitis, also known as "flesh-eating bacteria", a very rare bacterial infection. It kills tissue around the wound turning it black, and can quickly spread from the original infection site, which may cause death in a matter of hours.
Chrystal (Abbey Lee)
There are a few different conditions that could develop from a lack of calcium, which include hypocalcemia, osteoporosis and osteopenia. The very first symptom of calcium deficiency that many patients experience is an unexpected fracture, but in Chrystal's case, she seems to be doing mostly fine until the evening when she enters the caves and basically turns into a disfigured monster.
Severe symptoms of hypocalcemia include depression, hallucinations, muscle spasms, confusion or memory loss and easy fracturing of the bones, which pretty much all checks out with how we see Chrystal by the end of the film, completely erratic and with her bones fracturing and immediately healing (because of time running faster) in bent positions.
Severe calcium deficiencies can bring on seizures and cardiac arrest in otherwise healthy people, which seems to be what kills Chrystal. Her hunched back though would probably have been caused by osteoporosis, which the movie definitely exacerbates, but surely sitting bent over in a cave for half her life also didn't help.
Her role and illness appear to be a fear-inducing storytelling device that somewhat fits in with science.
Prisca (Vicky Krieps)
Cancer is a very real fear for many people who have had loved ones go through it and not make it out. But in the world of Shyamalan, if you have a pocket knife, you're golden.
Without any treatment or chemotherapy, it's not surprising that Prisca's tumour would grow. Tumours don't always grow at the same speed, so it's also somewhat grounded that the growth by her hip would quickly turn from the size of a tennis ball to that of a cantaloupe.
But that's no problem because apparently the tumour was just sat there inside of Prisca, not connected to any blood or lymph vessels and definitely not spreading to any surrounding tissues. So all it took was cutting her open, holding her open with sandy, dirty fingers, pop the tumour out and wait for the beach to magically patch her up.
It's wondrous how Prisca survived all that, but Charles died of a rusty butter knife scrape… but then again, in storyline terms she needed to survive to have a touching moment in the end with her husband and her kids as she passed away of old age.
Mid-Sized Sedan / Brendan (Aaron Pierre)
Brendan has haemophilia, a rare condition that affects the blood's ability to clot. Nosebleeds are very common for people with haemophilia, and it's what the film uses to remind up of his condition. It's kind of ironic then that Shyamalan would pick Brendan as the character to use to show us that on the beach, you heal quicker.
When Charles first cuts him on the cheek, the wound heals up in seconds, even with his haemophilia. But then, why would the small wounds in his nose cause it to bleed and not stop?
Haemophilia in itself does not cause death, but it can lead to death in a case where a wound does not stop bleeding and the person loses too much blood. Mid-Sized Sedan dies from Charles repeatedly attacking him with a knife – but again, why wouldn't those wounds also head up instantly? While it feels unlikely Charles would be able to do any fatal damage with his little pocket knife, it feels more like a plot device to turn Charles into a murderer. We don't see the exact details of the assault, so Shyamalan has us stumped here.
Ultimately, Shyamalan's science and medicine behind this film might not be the most solid. The loophole to explain why hair and nails don't grow on the beach (they are dead tissue already) is more an excuse to justify there being no wigs.
While we know it's beside the point to ponder about it, when you are served a high-concept sci-fi thriller, it’s too juicy not to tear it apart and analyse it for all it's worth.
And if you enjoyed the movie, don't let us ruin it for you with our wild speculation. While the delivery of Shyamalan's movies might not always land as he expects them to, you've got to credit the man for coming up with some wildly intriguing stories that are worth dissecting.
Old is out now in cinemas.
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