M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film Old follows in his classic tradition of twist endings, a tradition he started with his directorial debut The Sixth Sense over two decades ago. Old features a group of characters who are brought to a beach where they age roughly 1 year per 30 minutes with no way to escape. Old while using moments of body horror to demonstrate the terrifying effects of the beach falls more into the suspense thriller style of horror with the characters desperately searching for a way to escape.
Old introduces a variety of characters including the first family seen in the film: Guy, the father, Prisca, the mother, their daughter Maddox and her younger brother Trent. Although they at first appear to be the picturesque happy family, the cracks begin to form as the parents fight and it’s revealed that they are close to divorce after Prisca had cheated on Guy. Another family stuck on the beach includes a surgeon named Charles, his much younger wife Chrystal, their daughter Kara, and Charles’ mother. The others on the beach include a married couple named Patricia, her husband Jarin, a nurse, and a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan who was already there when the other families arrived.
And while the interpersonal conflicts grow between the characters as the stresses intensify in Old, the most notable aspect of these characters is that at least one member of each family has an illness. Prisca has a tumor she believes to be benign, Patricia has epilepsy, Chrystal has calcium deficiency, and Charles has a mental illness that appears to be degenerative. This is crucial to the twist in the end.
HOW THE TWIST ENDING IN OLD TIES TO REAL WORLD MEDICAL EXPERIMENTATION
The twist at the end of Old is that this beach was discovered and is used by a pharmaceutical company to test new drugs in an attempt to cure illnesses. Although the beach itself isn’t explained beyond the rocks being magnetized in some way to cause the aging, this isn’t the heart of the twist, instead focusing on the true villain behind the story, a pharmaceutical company.
Seeking out test subjects through pharmacies, offering them a trip to a luxurious resort, giving them cocktails laced with experimental drugs to treat their conditions, then bringing them to the beach where they live out their entire lives in a single day with no way to escape. This beach allows the drug company to test out the new medications over a life-time in a single day.
The real-world ethical problems are not exactly new, but the fantastical element makes this fascinating. And while the logic of these “trials” don’t line up completely, considering medical trials wouldn’t be based only on observation and single test subjects. Along with the fact that medical trials done on people who essentially now have a rapid aging condition, are not the ideal subjects for testing medication for the general public. Unethical medical experimentation is nothing new, with real world examples like the Tuskegee Experiment, Nazi scientist Josef Mengele’s human experimentation, and many more throughout history. What is terrifying is how accurate the portrayal of these drug company employees are to their real world counter parts.
In Old, the scientists who work for this pharmaceutical company seem to have no problem with essentially sentencing innocent people to death for no other reason than they themselves or their loved ones have chronic medical conditions. With the almost clinically insincere “moment of silence” for the latest batch of test subjects, the only argument that one of the scientists has is that they should separate the people with physical illnesses from those with mental illnesses because it is ruining their data, as was demonstrated by Charles killing Mid-Sized Sedan and attempting to kill Guy.
At the end of Old when Maddox and Trent seemingly drown while attempting to escape through the coral, which negates the effects of the rocks, they merely find it interesting that they thought to use the coral as an escape. The revelation that Maddox and Trent did manage to escape leads to the pair becoming whistleblowers who manage to shut down the illegal experimentation bringing a moment of happiness to an otherwise tragic end, including the fact that the pair are now over fifty and orphans.
And while this pharmaceutical company does seem to be making shocking medical advancements including a treatment that stopped Patricia’s seizures for the equivalent of 16 years, the problem is this single successful data point came at the cost of countless lives that ended after horrific torture. And from a scientific standpoint, this experimentation only allows a single dose to be tested and no way to learn anything beyond what is observable from afar which leaves a number questions unanswered about any treatment. At the end of the day this is a film about unethical medical trials, but told from the perspective of the unwitting test subject with a mystical element that amps up the horror in an already horrific story.
The twist itself may be the moment that Old truly becomes a horror story because of the real world events one can compare it to. Although there is an element of magic with the beach the true evil lies in the questions of ethics in medical testing and how often the need to further science, and profit, outweigh the humane treatment of people.
Showing not only the lengths a company is willing to go to for profits, torturing and killing countless men, women, and children, but just how desensitized the employees have become showing no true remorse for deceiving, killing, and disappearing their victims. The true depths of evil that people are capable of in the name of advancement of science is not a new concept and is tragically all too real to the world we live in.
Old is written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan and based on the graphic novel, Sandcastle, by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Fredrick Peters. Old stars Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, Aaron Pierre Alex Wolff, Thomas McKenzie, Eliza Scanlen. Old is now in theaters.
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