I watched the latest M. Night Shymalan film last night. I’ve always found his movies to be a compelling mix of intrigue, horror and, ultimately, an examination of the human condition.
One of my favourite films of his is The Village, about a 19th century settlement in America, where everything is not as it seems and the elders of the village do everything in their power to withhold the truth of their reality from their younger members, who are oblivious to the wider world they’re living in.
Living with ME, it often feels to me like my life stopped in 2018 when I became ill and while society moves on I’m trapped in a bubble with little interaction with the outside world. Living on a farm has its great benefits, but I can also go for months without seeing anyone other than my family, the postman, amazon and supermarket delivery people and the school bus driver. My existence in reality is held together by the superfast broadband connection coming via a transmitter from the house over on the hill. We work on a relay system, so if someone in the network trips their power, we all lose our connection. Such are the challenges of rural living. We lost power for 5 days during storm Arwen in November and suddenly I realised how isolated I could feel so quickly, and cut off from those daily interactions of twitter and Facebook which keep me going.
Isolation is a theme of Shymalan’s latest offering, Old, whereby a small group of people on a luxury holiday are taken to a beautiful secluded beach by a member of the hotel staff for a day of relaxation. Things quickly start to go wrong and they find they can’t leave the cove or contact anyone to get help. Soon they discover that due to some strange phenomenon, time is passing more quickly and they’re all aging at a concerning rate; children become teenagers within hours and the adults find themselves dealing with sight and hearing impairments that are associated with older age. The film carries the usual discomfort that comes to be a signature of Shymalan’s art but it also reminds us of our own fragility. We are forced to look at ourselves and reflect on how aging impacts us.
When I became ill with ME as an adult I was 36 years old. I turn 41 this year and have been ill for over 4 years. Like the beach in Old, those of us with ME feel stuck in a place (metaphorically and physically) which is separated and running at a different pace from the rest of the world. Our cognitive function can decline like that of older people, and every step we take is a reminder of how our bodies are shutting down as we live with joint pain and breathlessness amongst other things. I have a lot more white hairs than I did 4 years ago and I’m noticing deeper wrinkles on my face. I mean, these things are normal for my age, but all the life I would have lived over the last four years is not reflected in those wrinkles, which have been furrowed deeper by headaches and tremors I never wanted.
As is the case with Shymalan flicks, there’s a twist. Of course the people aren’t on the beach randomly but were specially and, unknowingly to the individuals, selected by a big pharma corporation, who discovered the cove’s unique properties and are using it as a lab to covertly test treatments on patients and see their long term effects in super fast time. A woman died on the beach, but the dark success is that scientists find a treatment that will significantly help thousands of people.
The film asks us to consider heavy philosophical and moral themes of utilitarianism. Do we allow, or instigate the suffering of some individuals to initiate a greater good for a much larger cohort within society? Is the motivation of big Pharma about improving the lives of people, or ultimately to make money? We see these tensions take place across the world and currently with the war in Ukraine where global powers are allowing horrific suffering to prevent potentially global and catastrophic suffering. The world is currently wrestling with its morality in real time and it is painful.
For those of us living with ME and chronic illness it feels like time is running out. Our lives have been swallowed by a time trap, we can look in the mirror and see the effects of suffering in our bodies, we feel old. We mourn for what we’ve lost, and we don’t see a way out as biological research funding is meager. Maybe once we’ve campaigned with what little strength we have, and tried all the things that might help, all we can really do on a personal level is sit on our own beaches and appreciate the beauty around us while the life we knew rapidly disappears into the increasingly distant past.