Old is getting mixed to negative reviews, but the film proves M. Night Shyamalan’s ambition is vital in today’s Hollywood built on franchises IP.
Despite its mixed reception, Old proves that M. Night Shyamalan‘s divisive movies are important and necessary in Hollywood, even when they’re bad. Shyamalan’s latest addition to his filmography, which has included soaring highs and disappointing lows, is receiving generally mixed reviews mainly due to its mystifying plot. However, it’s that exact refusal to conform to typical storytelling standards which shows that after twenty years, Shyamalan’s gung-ho originality makes him stand out from the rest of the pack, even if that drive doesn’t always lead to the most coherent stories.
Shyamalan was never one to play it safe and follow standard Hollywood conventions. The Sixth Sense is a genre-bending ghost story that established the filmmaker as a master of the plot twist, but years of discussion about the film’s ending often overshadows the fact that the entire story is composed of misdirections, jumping from suspense to tragedy and eventually landing on a satisfyingly peaceful note. Shyamalan’s defiance to have his plots remain situated in one predictable direction is what elevated his status as an artist but also what eventually led to his critical downfall.
Old represents the exact sort of unorthodox storytelling that has made Shyamalan either a daring maverick or a reckless and unfocused mess of a filmmaker, depending on one’s point of view. The film might just be Shyamalan’s most divisive in years, its existential premise and body horror thrills garnering welcome positive attention but Old‘s overexplanatory ending twist bringing any depth the story had into schlock territory. The point, however, is that Old is far from predictable, generic Hollywood fare and it shows exactly why Shyamalan’s movies are still needed as they eschew a number of Hollywood tropes. Old‘s big bad is an existential concept, a rotating cast of actors play the same characters, and perhaps most importantly, it’s an original (though not totally, it is based on a graphic novel), mid-budget, wide-release creation that isn’t a sequel, remake, or reboot.
In recent years, Hollywood’s studio system has become overly reliant on keeping huge franchise IPs going, with studios milking as many tentpoles out of a known brand as they can. While big-budget popcorn movies can be great and certainly have their place in entertainment, the rise of the IP tentpole has unfortunately squeezed out many of the smaller budget, original films that Hollywood used to make. These days, streaming platforms are the ones taking chances on weird ideas and one-off films. Shyamalan is one of the few directors whose original, experimental movies still get theatrically released.
No matter how divisive his movies are, they always attract an audience simply because there’s greatness in his ideas if not always in the execution. Each new Shyamalan release has the potential to achieve the heights of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, or Split. Because of this, and his relatively small movie budgets, Shyamalan’s movies have almost always turned a profit no matter how divisive they are. While there’s certainly a longer conversation to be had about the state of the studio system overall, or whether or not a female director would get as many chances, the fact remains that Shyamalan plays a vital role in the industry. Hollywood isn’t “out of ideas,” as so many people complain; studios are just afraid to take chances. Shyamalan’s movies are proof that experimental and divisive movies can still make money provided they’re paired with a reasonable budget.
It’s telling that only The Last Airbender, a soulless adaptation of a lauded TV series, and After Earth, a generic science-fiction action movie that Will Smith spearheaded, are perhaps the only two Shyamalan movies whose negative qualities are due to their lack of originality. Old, for all its sometimes unnecessary twists and turns, still represents something exciting. Even though the film’s logic may be nonsensical, Shyamalan is expressing complex anxieties, and even though his message gets muddled in the shifting sands of time, his mission is that of an ambitious auteur that still makes him a recognizable name. Shyamalan may not always hit, but he does always swing for the fences.
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