WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for M. Night Shyamalan’s Old
It took me longer than I would like to admit to come up with a title to this text that wouldn’t immediately ruin the film for anyone who has not seen Old yet. And although I think did a good enough job in remaining slightly vague while still making sure the title corresponds to what I wanted to touch on, something tells me (based on the dwindling conversation surrounding the film and the negative word-of-mouth extinguishing the film’s presence in the zeitgeist) that there aren’t many people left in the world who would care that much anyway.
Anyway, I feel I should calibrate myself here and state that I overall liked Old quite a bit as an extremely personal and idiosyncratic satire that smuggles some deeply-seated reflections on the human condition, all wrapped in Shyamalan’s signature mystery vehicle.
This isn’t where the film ends and I purposefully avoided mentioning it in my original review, partly because I wanted to avoid spoiling the experience (and now you have been warned, so it’s your fault for not paying attention if you haven’t seen the film and you’re still here), but also because the social commentary the final reveal in the film adds to the overarching narrative might have been a little bit problematic for me as a viewer. Granted, I don’t think it affects my overall opinion of the film because its philosophical content and reflections on life as a journey remain unaffected by it, but still…
In the interest of clarity, Old ends with a revelation that the beach where protagonists were trapped and ended up aging rapidly and dying off in a variety of ways is owned by some kind of a pharmaceutical company, who stage blind human trials on unsuspecting vacationers. They identify suitable candidates who suffer from diseases they are interested in curing, offer them a holiday in a seaside paradise and – just before dispatching them to the beach where they would age and die in twenty-four hours – give them a drink containing a medicine they’re testing. The whole experiment is overseen and recorded by a character played by Shyamalan himself, who assumes the role of a god in this scenario. The crux of it has to do with the fact the pharmaceutical company in question is thought to have discovered this beach and realized they could shorten the time it takes to experiment with long-term effects of new medicines and hence increase their impact on the world because they would no longer have to wait twenty or thirty years to identify whether certain drugs have hidden side effects or if they would offer long term solutions to people suffering from diseases which have been historically known as difficult or impossible to treat.
Naturally, the fact the pair of protagonists escape the beach and reveal its existence to the outside world brings the experiment to a close and uncovers it as utterly immoral shortly before the screen fades to black. As a result, it might not necessarily leave the viewer with stirring thoughts about their own mortality, but rather with questions regarding the inner workings of the field of drug discovery, which has for a very long time been seen as secretive and potentially shady. In fact, it is far too easy to dismiss the entire pharmaceutical industry as morally bankrupt based on a simple google search because great breakthroughs enabled by the bright and industrious scientists working in this field are usually a footnote in the news cycle. On the other hand, if a pharma company gets fined for price-gouging or if something goes terribly wrong in clinical trials, it’s front page news. And because the industry is organically secretive (due to extreme competition and financial risks associated with trying to develop a medicine), it openly invites all the Bobs, Karens and Sheilas to buy into, spread and amplify disinformation on Facebook. In short, the pharmaceutical industry has had a long-standing issue with public perception and – to put it politely – the ending of Old ain’t gonna help to change it. Therefore, you can imagine how torn I felt on the way back home because on one hand I truly resonated with what I deem the primary thematic layer of this film, and on the other I was deeply unsettled by the commentary it invites.
The reason why I am so bothered by all this is simple. Over the course of the still ongoing pandemic, the public perception of the pharmaceutical industry as a whole seemed prime for a major change. When the world at large got asked to stay home, people’s attention was rightly focused on championing health workers who – akin to soldiers at the front – put their own lives on the line to save others from succumbing to COVID. But that’s not all. It immediately became obvious that the only way we could ever beat the disease was by developing treatments and vaccines; which put the entire pharmaceutical industry in the spotlight. And on high alert. Because – believe it or not – pharmaceutical companies and research institutes are filled not by money-hungry sharks or amoral and uncaring sociopaths, but by people driven to make a difference. And the pandemic offered them a chance to step up to the plate and solve a problem that the world was desperately asking to be solved pronto.
The rest is history, or so it would seem. In record time we have gained access to a whole range of COVID vaccines, there are treatments in developments, some pre-existing drugs have been re-examined and re-deployed to give patients better odds of surviving and the general public has warmed up considerably to the idea of not treating the pharmaceutical companies like bloodthirsty vampires interested in milking their patients instead of curing them any longer. To a point. This new-found appreciation of men and women of science who have made these discoveries and pulled out all the stops to make the vaccine rollout a success that it is, is extremely fragile and constantly chipped away at by Jareds, Sharons, Bobs and Karens who think Bill Gates wants to microchip them, that luciferase is a devil’s enzyme and that governments in cahoots with big pharma bros are covering up millions of deaths from vaccine side effects. And it doesn’t help that media outlets have just tried to frame Pfizer’s vaccine revenue in a strangely insidious way or that a bunch of companies in the UK got fined for illegally manipulating prices of some generic drugs. We must remember that the general public isn’t generally at home with the idea of supporting an industry seen as a notch up from ambulance chasers and used car salesmen. Even though everyone is basking in the vaccine success as societies open up, people are actively looking for reasons to distrust the pharmaceutical industry again.
I can honestly imagine that for some viewers, Old might become the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You can visualise some Karen in the cinema turning to her braindead husband, slapping him on the shoulder and saying “See? I told you these people are crooked! And that’s why everyone who takes the vaccine is a sheep!” in a roar of mistimed vindication. And it won’t matter that the entire purpose of this reveal isn’t so much to vilify this industry as a whole but to pose a question which is at best clumsily put together. What I think Shyamalan is asking us to wonder is whether it would be morally OK for us to use such an anomaly to our advantage and save many lives by sacrificing some, specifically without their express consent. Granted, this opens up a whole can of worms in general because it does not reflect the nature of how clinical trials are conducted at all and – to top it all off – it is a question humanity had asked already and got the answer too. It’s simple: it’s not moral or OK and Shyamalan knows that. In fact, everybody knows that and it would be a profoundly bad idea to suggest otherwise because it would put you on a moral plane together with Nazi scientists; and nobody wants to find themselves there. It’s not a crowd I’d like to be photographed with, if you know what I mean.
But Sheilas, Karens, Bobs, Stans, Sharons and Chads won’t care. Their suspicions will be vindicated and they’ll proceed to clutter social media with their anti-vaccine disinformation and vitriol with renewed confidence. So… All in all, maybe it is for the better that Old turned out to be so inaccessible to wide audiences that people are more likely to walk out of the film or even completely disregard the message sent by its ending because they would be pissed off they spent money on watching actors performing in a strange and stilted way, rather than to have their suspicions erroneously confirmed.
I guess what I have spent well over a thousand words waltzing around is the following: don’t take the twist too seriously. Vaccines work. Get yours.