Old is a weird movie in that it invites thought and immediately falls apart if you think about it too hard. It’s something crystalline and fragmented, somehow both beautiful to look at and ultimately cheap.
It made me think about CinemaSins and the derailment of content criticism.
CinemaSins is, as I write this, the topic du jour. Honestly, as I write this, CinemaSins is currently no longer the trending topic. They’ve already pretended to make a response video to the situation (it’s a Rick Roll), but it seems relevant to Old somehow and the greater discussion of filmic criticism. CinemaSins, for better or for worse (it’s for worse), inspired a generation of people to believe that critical thinking was defined by being nitpicky. That noticing the plot holes in a piece, or the way that continuity wasn’t maintained by a script supervisor, is somehow criticism. Being an eagle eyed viewer does not make you smart, it makes you pedantic.
Old is the kind of movie made for CinemaSins.
Here’s where pedantry will get you in criticism. Plot holes are not an inherent failing. There are good movies that are plot hole ridden and bad movies that take care to make sure that they’re watertight and it doesn’t inherently matter. Does it ultimately matter that the T1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day is made of liquid metal and somehow able to use the time machine despite the fact that metal cannot pass unimpeded through the time machine in that universe? Not really. Is Solo really a better movie because it decided to explain the origin of Han Solo’s blaster? No. These are the kinds of elements you think about when you’re drunk on the floor chatting with friends. Movie shower thoughts. Or when you make an incredibly popular YouTube series based on pointing out these sorts of issues. They don’t actually change your enjoyment of the film. Where they matter is when they ultimately show that the writing is bad. Old is actually a fantastic example of this.
Old is a film about introspection at its strongest, the values that we hold dear when our lives are flashing before our eyes – do we care more about our families or our petty squabbles? Our appearances? The chance to make a difference in the lives of those around us? What is growing old but considering the state of our lives?
If you take the CinemaSins angle on Old it’s easier to get hung up on the oddest things. How did a paranoid schizophrenic become a cardio-thorasic surgeon when the medications he would’ve been put on around the time his schizophrenia manifested would have made his hands shake? Why can’t the movie seem to decide what levels of bodily violence will heal instantly versus kill you? These sorts of drug trial results are so inconsistent and unmonitored that they would never have created valid or useful results based on the collected information. Why did these people go to an isolated island beach without any way for them to contact a guy for pickup? As of writing there’s no CinemaSins for Old, but if they make one it feels like at least some of these may be born out in their video content.
It’s not that any of these points are necessarily wrong. For one, the way that Old handles mental illness is at once bizarre and thoughtful. Shyamalan partially based the dementia one character experiences on his own father, and as someone who recently lost a family member to a combination of COVID and dementia, it feels very authentic. Becoming an audience member is very frequently about suspension of disbelief. Not to get all “the dictionary definition of this term,” but the concept of suspension of disbelief is one that predates film. It’s a contract between the audience and the creator. The creator tells you “I have crafted this thing, willingly ignore the implausibility and we’ll have fun” and you buy into that as the audience. OK, so there’s a beach that turns people old. That seems all right.
But when the movie asks you to interrogate itself (which I think textually Old does) part of the contract then becomes fraught if it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The film is undercut every few minutes by another odd decision, from bizarre line reads that made it into the final cut, to characters blatantly saying their characters’ motivations directly to camera, and so forth. The plot holes in Old, numerous as they are, become less a question of the suspension of disbelief and more a failing of the writing. Because at the end of the day that is ultimately the problem with Old. It’s absolutely terribly written.
The way that CinemaSins has taught the audiences and the copycat YouTube critics to interrogate films is through pedantry and pointing out these failings but not really digging into what they actually mean. This is the extra-level of interpretation that is actually criticism. Old isn’t bad because it has plot holes, Old is bad because it’s poorly written and the plot holes are a byproduct of that writing. The writing is also something that even a cast of talented actors and a decent cinematographer cannot compensate for. It bogs down a clean concept in 2 hours of content, when it should’ve been a tight 90 minutes at best. A film that kills its most interesting character (it’s a man named Mid-sized Sedan) before they really do anything with him, and then make us hang out for another hour wrapped in a cloak of bizarre nihilism steeped family drama.
There’s no sins here. It’s not a sin to write a bad movie. It’s just a shame to sit with it.