Old is obsessed with time. It doesn’t have much to say about it, except that it passes quickly. In one scene, two 6-year-olds are standing in the surf when the first kid admits to the second that he has no friends. I’m your friend, the second replies. The first kid smiles, then comments: “We’ll be friends today, then we’ll go to the same college, and then we’ll buy houses and be neighbors.” They grow up so fast.
That second kid, he’s Trent (Nolan River), and he’s here on vacation with his 11-year-old sister, Maddox (Alexa Swinton), and parents, Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and Guy (Gael García Bernal). Here is an all-inclusive beach resort on a remote island somewhere far away from the real world, the kind of place where the staff hands you a specialty-made cocktail when you arrive and have activities planned for every waking minute. Trent and Maddox don’t know it yet, but this is their last hurrah as a family. You see, Prisca is a museum curator, and she’s stuck in the past. Guy is an actuary, and he can’t stop thinking about the future. Their marriage is failing because neither is in the present. Get it? Prisca also has a medical ailment, but I’ll leave that to the movie. Now it’s time to talk about the beach: It’s a private beach you can only visit if the resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) likes you and arranges for you to see it. Lucky for our foursome, he likes them and arranges a day on the beach.
Apparently, he likes another family and another couple at the resort and sends them too. Curiously, each has a specific medical condition. That’s not unusual. What’s unusual is that some of them will be defined by their condition, and some will not. The rules are murky, and consistency is not the movie’s strength. It all feels so planned. Part of that is the story, and part of that is the author.
Working from the graphic novel, Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, director M. Night Shyamalan telegraphs his story and reduces his characters into little more than woke platitudes. Characters speak of feeling seen, holding democratic discussions when they need to make decisions, not discounting others’ experiences, and so on. Shyamalan uses these lines so flatly it’s hard to tell if he is being sincere or cynical. The character that says them the most, Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), is a psychiatrist and makes sure everyone knows it. Her husband, Jarin (Ken Leung), is a nurse, and he comes loaded with dialogue and observations to make it painfully clear that he’s smarter than the doctor, Charles (Rufus Sewell), who’s also stuck on the beach with his elderly mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), wife, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), and 11-year-old daughter, Kara (Mikaya Fisher). Remember Prisca, the curator, and Guy, the actuary? Lotta smarts on this beach. Shyamalan grants each of them at least one moment that speaks to their respective fields. And boy do they make a meal out of it when that moment comes.
What are they trying to figure out? Anyone who sets foot on this beach will age one year every 30 minutes. An odd ratio, if you ask me. The rocks surrounding the beach trap them in, and the breakers crashing on the coral keep them from swimming out. They’re all stuck here until it’s ashes to ashes. The kids show their rapid aging first, going from 6 and 11 to 15 and 16 in a couple of scenes—don’t worry about the math; it’s not the only thing that doesn’t add up here. That puts Trent (Alex Wolff) in the throws of teenage hormones. He goes to comfort Kara (Eliza Scanlen), and in the next scene, she’s in her second trimester. There’s a lot of discussion about how the beach is accelerating cellular development, but no one says a lick about emotional maturity. If that’s the case, then Trent and Kara should act like a couple of 6-year-olds trapped in 15-year-old bodies. Instead, they act like horny and hysteric teenagers. Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie), on the other hand, doesn’t. She acts like a little girl, talks in a squeaky pitch, and spends most of the movie running around in a bikini and leaning toward the camera. It raises as many questions as Trent and Kara’s consummation.
Oh, the questions I have. It doesn’t help that the characters spend the bulk of their time trying to rationalize what’s happening. The more they bring reason in, the dumber it all sounds.
The look isn’t much better. Cinematographer Michael Gioulakis has shot some beautiful movies in his day, but the number of tight close-ups against poor process shots here is jarring. I assume most of them were necessitated by a bevy of COVID-era restrictions, but Shyamalan seems to double down on the close-ups in an attempt to turn a problem into a solution. It doesn’t work.
Neither does the movie’s reveal, which tries to recast the horrors of the beach in some sort of positive light. I won’t spoil it, but Spock’s line, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” comes to mind. What a turd.
Written for the screen and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters
Produced by Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan, M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, Eliza Scanlen, Alexa Swinton, Gustaf Hammarsten, Kathleen Chalfant, Nolan River, Mikaya Fisher
Universal Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 108 minutes, Opens July 23, 2021