Year: 2021
Studio: Universal
Director: M Night Shyamalan
Producer: M Night Shyamalan
Writer: M Night Shyamalan
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomas McKenzie, Abbey Lee, M Night Shyamalan

It's hard to put your finger on exactly what makes an M Night Shyamalan film, as a judge once said it's like porn – you just know it when you see it. Not long after seeing this movie I rewatched his 2002 effort Signs for the first time since it was out in cinemas and enjoyed it a bit less than I did the first time around, finding the 'filmy' touches a bit too obtuse, the camerawork and the direction such strongly applied secondary characters they became a bit distracting and overcooked.

He does a little bit of the same here, although he's become a bit more subtle with it over the years, so it doesn't steal the limelight away from the actual plot quite as much.

The premise is original enough to get (and keep) you interested, it's just a question of whether he can sustain it, and he mostly does, keeping the Spielberg and Hitchcock airs to a minimum. Thankfully, the trailer only gives you the first act, so above everything else whatever's really going on is a surprise and a mystery, and if nothing else Shyamalan (as the screenwriter) is talented enough to know when to dole out clues to make you stay with it.

Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their young kids Trent and Maddox arrive at a beach resort for a holiday and everything seems rosy until we learn later that night they're planning to separate, not having even told their kids yet.

But they're determined to have one more good time as a family before it all ends so they follow the advice of the concierge to take an exclusive day trip to a nearby beach that's unknown by most guests, piling into the minibus with a few others. The driver (Shyamalan, in his Hitchcockian cameo) takes them as far as a parking lot nearby and tells them how to get there, clearly reluctant to accompany them and evasive about why.

But as disquieting as the behaviour is, it's soon forgotten when they walk through a short rocky canyon and find themselves in a paradise. They all settle in to enjoy themselves, but in short order a dead body shows up. In a Shyamalan hallmark, the characters respond and behave is strange ways that suit the tense atmosphere he's trying to evoke but are jarring because of how little sense they'd make in real life.

But as more weird and scary happenings pile up one after the other, someone eventually has the idea of trying to leave by walking back through the rock walls to the jungle carpark. Doing so, however, brings on an attack of dizziness that causes the victim to black out and wake up back on the beach where they started, and the group realises they're all trapped there.

When Maddox and Trent later turn up as teenagers and other members of the group start showing signs of what for all the world seems like advanced ageing, they can't ignore it any longer. Time appears to be running at breakneck speed and they're all growing older at a rate of years every hour. Someone calculates that at the rate it's happening, most of them will die of old age within a day.

Things go from bad to worse (though apart from changing actors to portray the young characters growing up, there's a disconcerting lack of make-up effects intended to make the adult characters seem decades older) and more bodies pile up when there's another revelation – everyone stranded has some medical kind of medical condition. It's a further clue about what's really going on – especially as we see glimpses of the minibus driver apparently spying on them from way up in the nearby hills through a telescope – but most of the characters won't live to figure it out.

Partly as a result of the story mechanics and partly because of Shyamalan's sheer Shyamalan-ness, you'll be confused about what was going on once or twice, not realising where certain characters came from or what they had to do with each other (I had no idea, for instance, that Abbey Lee's character was the trophy wife of Rufus Sewell's character until a long way after it mattered).

But the overarching story is interesting, the premise is even more interesting and all that was left was for Shyamalan to try not to ruin it with heavy-handedness. He does so here and it makes for a more creatively successful film as a result.

Just as interesting however is the $18m budget. Maybe it was because it was made during the height of the COVID pandemic when hundred million dollar blockbusters became an endangered species and nimble, small-company movies like this where all it was possible to make. But I wonder if it was because, for all his early career bluster about being the next Spielberg, critics and fans have never wholly embraced him, and the industry just doesn't consider him worth spending that much money on any more.

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