In deference to the very vocal minority of internet cinephile types who have decided to use the new film Old to declare that M. Night Shyamalan has Actually Always Been Good, I will say this: the directing certain is not lazy. Shyamalan has quite a remarkable number of tricks laid out to make what's very close to being a single-location thriller seem endlessly renewable, visually; complicated camera movements by the bucketful, surprising angles, the whole nine yards. Whether this translates to the directing being good, well, I absolutely won't go that far. Indeed, I think it would be extremely easy to accuse Old of being conspicuously over-directed, not so much opened up as turned tough and chewy. But there sure is a lot of directing, anyway, and the one thing we cannot say of the film is that Shyamalan is coasting on pretty much anything.

The film has been adapted, more in concept than detail as I understand it, from the Franco-Swiss graphic novel Sandcastle, and it tells the story of a beach that makes you old. Eventually. First, it spends a decent amount of time establishing the Cappa family: dad Guy (Gael García Bernal) is an insurance actuary who has an unfortunate gift for memorizing the likelihood of any given action killing you, and it gives him a general low-grade paranoia; mom Prisca (Vicky Krieps) is the curator of a history museum; 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River), who I think is meant to be coded as autistic given his tendency to stating too many expository facts at a rapid-fire pace, but it's hard to tell, because Shyamalan's script has pretty much all of the characters talk that way; and 11-year-old Maddux (Alexa Swinton), who'll have to wait on a personality for a bit. In one of the only conversations in the entire movie where characters talk around what's on their mind, rather than just pivoting to the camera and saying "hello audience, here are the germane facts of this scene", we intuit that Guy and Prisca are looking to take one last fun family vacation before breaking the news to the kids that they're getting separated, and this choice has been sped up by Prisca recently receiving a scary medical diagnosis of as-yet uncertain mortality. So they've just shown up at a fancy resort on a private tropical island, one that has very little publicity as yet, and Prisca can't entirely recall how she became aware of the place. But it's lavish and friendly, and they're greeted upon arriving by the beaming face and thick Swedish accent of the resort owner (Gustaf Hammarsten). And golly Moses, if you can't trust the Swedes to run a relaxing tropical resort, who could?

It is easy to admire Old for taking the impulse that we should be enmeshed in the domestic drama of the family long before the thriller elements click in; it would be even easier if the execution wasn't dismal. The problem with favoring character material over genre mechanics is that you need to have solid characters for that to work, and this is one of the signature failures of the script: in motivation, and in dialogue, and mostly in acting, not one of the humans in the movie feels like a real person. The film tries so very hard, which makes its shortcomings all the more intense in this matter. Setting aside how very little it appears that Swinton and River could share any genes at all with each other, let alone the combination of García Bernal and Krieps, the way they're put together always feels like strangers badly faking what they think "family fun time" looks like; when García Bernal has to pretend to play a prank on the kids and then wrestles them onto a bed, for example, the blocking and narrative mechanics of the moment are front and center, never the organic coziness of a family laughing and playing. And it certainly doesn't help matters that Old is a grungy 85-minute trapped in a 108-minute "real movie" body, and the long stretch before they get to Evil Beach is the obvious place to do some snipping.

Anyways, the completely trustworthy and not at all creepily incongruous manager  suggest, on the family's first morning, that they should go to a super-secret private beach he owns. And this they do, traveling with another family made of crabby racist doctor Charles (Rufus Sewell), his aging mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), his trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), and their 6-year-old daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey). Shortly thereafter, they're met by another married couple, psychologist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and nurse Jarin (Ken Leung), who'd had a less than optimal run-in with Charles the previous day when Patricia was rolling around in an epileptic fit. They also meet famous rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who has been sitting for apparently hours on the beach with a chronic nosebleed; we've already seen him, arriving at dusk before, with a blonde woman who is presently missing. More to the point, "Mid-Sized Sedan", are you literally shitting me. That is the most "middle-aged man who listened to rap once in the late 1990s" kind of name to give a rapper, what the hell.

In short order, the blonde woman reappears, now in drowned corpse form, and this freaks everybody out. But it freaks them out much less than when Maddux, Trent, and Kara run back from having been playing on the far side of the beach, and have inexplicably all aged up by about five years in the short time since anybody saw them last (Thomasin McKenzie now plays Maddux, and will continue to do so for some time; Luca Faustino Rodriguez and Mikaya Fisher take over Trent and Kara, and will soon hand the roles off to Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlen). This is just treated as some bizarre freak occurrence at first, but soon other events - Agnes's sudden death of old age, the unreasonably fast decay of the blonde woman's body, covering in about three hours what should take several years - have convinced the beachgoers that this beach has some kind of bizarre property that makes you age at the rate of about one year per thirty minutes. Plus, if you try to leave it, you black out, so everybody needs to strap in and prepare to live out the rest of their lives and die by sunrise, except for the kids, who will be idiot children trapped in adults bodies until they die at the ripe old age of tomorrow afternoon. At a certain point, it is explained what is going on, and the explanation is blood-curdlingly stupid, but I have to at least admire the all-in commitment of everybody involved in selling the dumbfound final ten minutes as something intellectual and meaningful, God bless them.

Not a bad gimmick, really, if you can decide what to do with it. Shyamalan mostly has, or at least he's bundled together a few not-quite-the-same-ideas into one package. So there's a little bit of "the fear of getting old", there's a little bit of "the fear of losing loved ones", there's a little bit of "watching helplessly as your darling children become adults", and these aren't so far apart that they can't be yoked into one thing. Old doesn't quite do that yoking, and it also never quite finds a way to combine the character material with the horror of the situation, so it tends to alternate scenes. The most actively horrifying scenes that draw the most from body horror (within the ungenerous limits of a PG-13 rating) are almost uniformly the best, since they rely the most on the confused terror at watching human bodies failing faster and more horribly than even our fragile meat-and-water selves are meant to, and least on the actors successfully communicating that they understand what the hell is being asked of them. Old has a very well-supplied cast, and yet somehow Wolff is pretty much the only person who has clearly worked out exactly what the implications of the scenario are and what that requires of him as an actor, as he plays a 6-year-old boy with the congealing brain and muscular body of an adolescent and early twentysomething, but without the life experience to make anything out of his newfound ability to actually apply logic and emotional stability to his thought processes. There are isolated moments that are very lovely, including García Bernal and Krieps doing superb wordless work as an old couple dozing off in each other's company; and given the script's profound confusion between dementia and schizophrenia, the actor who has to make some sense of that remarkably fuck-up manages to do a pretty good job of seeming both sad and dangerous simultaneously.

Mostly, though, this is not a good character piece. When it works, Old works on the level of mysterious atmosphere and ambient danger. Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis get a lot of mileage out of using diffuse, smudgy cinematography to make the peaceful sunshine of the beach look gloomy, somehow, and while the film overrelies on Trevor Gureckis's generically "isn't this spooky?!?" score to add some menace to scenes, that plays pretty nicely with the images as well. Less effective, I am afraid, is the very idiosyncratic approach the filmmakers have taken to setting their camera up and spinning it around the actors. Old loves its long tracking shots, slowly gliding away from characters so that we can't see what they're freaking out about, or so that freaky substitutions can be made while we're not looking; it's a fine idea, but Shyamalan overrelies on it, while also having the tracking shots and pans themselves move so glacially slowly that it becomes almost insultingly obvious what he's trying to do in the middle of doing it. And the movement and the wide lenses combine to make something that feels very crummy and wobbly as it meanders through lens distortion - it's not as aggressively ugly as this summer's No Sudden Move was in doing the same thing, but it also feels much more like an accident than an aggressive, albeit off-putting choice.

On top of this, Old has a strange habit of simply not caring about the relationship between what we're seeing and who's talking: the camera floats away in the middle of sentences, people deliver speeches while all we see are their nose, and so on. It's too persistent to be anything other than a strategy, though what in God's name the strategy is meant to yield, I cannot say. It's not like what we're looking at is any more interesting or important than just seeing people puke out exposition in the uncertain acting style that all the non-Wolff actors have tripped over as their way of dealing with the unreadable lines they've been given. Anyway, when people shut up, or even just when they're screaming, Old manages to be pretty good and creepy, so to a certain extent, all is forgiven. Or, if not forgiven, at least easy to ignore. Shyamalan has made films with worse premises leading to worse execution that yields even less than this film's brooding moodiness, so even if the very short return to form of 2015's The Visit and 2016's Split does not pop back up in this film, at least we're even farther from The Happening or The Last Airbender. Not that Shyamalan wants to make grubby thrillers, more's the pity, but the evidence of this film suggests that he at least still could.