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M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, HBO’s The White Lotus, and the existential terror of right now

Both were filmed in Covid-19 bubbles, and both are about going on vacation in a world slipping into the sea.

Gael Garcia Bernal, in old-age makeup, stares at something off-camera, while Connie Britton toasts someone with a glass of white wine, in a diptych of two images.
Old’s Gael Garcia Bernal and The White Lotus’s Connie Britton both went on vacation and got older, but everything happened much more quickly for one of them.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Around halfway through director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie Old, Maddox, played by Thomasin McKenzie, has just begun to realize the weight of what has happened to her.

While on vacation with her parents and younger brother, Maddox went to the beach as an 11-year-old (at which point, she was played by a different actor). But this beach ages people at the rate of roughly one year per half-hour. Pretty soon, she’s a teenager. As the day passes, she progresses through her 20s and 30s. (McKenzie takes over the role about 30 minutes into the film, when Maddox is 16, then plays her for most of the rest of the movie.)

Maddox is a problem solver, as so many eldest children are. She begins to pace on the sand, insisting to herself that she must keep it together. But she can’t stop thinking about all she’s lost, an 11-year-old in a young adult’s body. Prom, graduation, college — they’re all slipping away in a matter of hours. Her world is collapsing beneath her.

Old is full of kids like Maddox, kids who’ve assumed their lives will always be safe and predictable, only to suddenly learn they’re anything but on the beach that makes you old. One kid tells his friend they’ll be best friends forever, until they both live next door to each other and have mortgages. Another kid, now a teenager thanks to the beach, gets pregnant; neither she nor the boy who impregnated her have any idea how it happened. Even Shyamalan’s camera gets in on the action, doing long pans across the beach from one position to another. Each time it returns to its starting point, something has changed or new information has appeared in the frame, often unpredictably. The message is always the same: Something safe has failed us. The world is falling apart.

Old is a movie about how parents are rendered inadequate and helpless when faced with the task of preparing their children for a world that stops making sense. It is also one of the first wide-release movies to have been filmed entirely in the middle of a pandemic-imposed bubble, and the existential terror of a year in quarantine informs almost every moment of the movie.

The film is not the only recent release to embrace this thematic sensibility. Another, similar project, HBO’s limited TV series The White Lotus, currently airing on Sundays, also takes place in a tropical setting drenched with omens of something dark and terrible just over the horizon. Old is a horror movie; The White Lotus is a social satire. They’re still weirdly in conversation.

Both Old and The White Lotus were produced under similar Covid-19 safety protocols (an isolated location, a small cast of actors, lots of filming outdoors). Both are informed by their respective filming bubbles, and both are also interested in the ways the world feels a little less “normal” with every day. Both are soaked through with pre-apocalyptic dread, and both prominently feature an ocean that looms in the background, occasionally sweeping a smartphone away or washing a dead body onto the shore. It’s not that far a stretch to suggest those moments are provoked by anxiety over rising sea levels.

Old and The White Lotus are convinced we live in a world that is falling apart, both broadly (nothing makes sense anymore!) and more granularly (the planet is heating up!). They both serve to underline how there’s very little we can do about any of it.

The symbiotic relationship between Covid-19 bubbles and the filming of Old and The White Lotus

Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps on the beach, with a yellow umbrella behind them.
Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps play two parents who watch in horror as they and their children’s lives spiral out of control.
Universal Pictures

Old and The White Lotus might seem to have very little in common, beyond a tropical setting and the fact that they both feature dead bodies.

The former is a horror movie from a love-or-hate director whose career has become emblematic of big twist endings and overwrought dialogue. The latter is an acidic social satire set at a Hawaiian resort whose many guests have gathered for a variety of reasons — a family getaway, a honeymoon, a mourning ritual. It’s written and directed by Mike White, of Enlightened fame, who is one of television’s best observers of rich white people’s blind spots and idiosyncrasies. The former is an overblown B-movie. The latter is akin to an American Renoir film, complete with all the class warfare you could hope for.

That’s where their production commonalities factor in. Old and The White Lotus were both filmed in the midst of the pandemic, in complete production lockdowns. By replicating the rhythms of a vacation and traveling to a singular destination, then quarantining and establishing a Covid-19 bubble, each could limit who was on and off the set, simply thanks to geography. Shyamalan went so far as to rent an entire resort in the Dominican Republic so that his cast and crew could remain isolated from the world at large. The White Lotus filmed at the Four Seasons resort in Maui, with the hotel completely closed to the public for much of production.

Old had been greenlit in 2019, but it didn’t begin shooting until September of 2020; production wrapped in November. HBO actually approached White in mid-2020 to ask if he could construct a story that could be filmed in a single location very quickly, to facilitate production during lockdown. He began shooting The White Lotus in October of 2020 and was done by the end of the year. At the time, Hawaii had seen very limited Covid-19 cases; Maui County has had just under 5,500 Covid-19 cases ever.

If you poke at the seams of Old and The White Lotus, you can see how they were each designed to accommodate pandemic safety concerns. Both have extremely limited casts of characters, neither of which expands that much throughout their respective stories. Both feature a lot of scenes filmed outdoors or on large, open-air patios. Both are set at resorts, which are reasonably easy to lock down, provided you’re willing to buy out the whole place — a much easier prospect during a global event that has enormously diminished world travel.

Both stories are also informed by pandemic-era sensitivities and share a deep-seated claustrophobia common to works predominantly set in a single location. The people on the beach in Old cannot escape said beach, and the people at the resort in The White Lotus don’t seem to want to leave the resort. Everybody’s trapped, usually with their families and a random assortment of strangers, like in your average quarantine-era apartment building. Children, left unsupervised, get into trouble on their own, and their parents are too exhausted or apathetic to do anything about it. Everybody gets into arguments about just how fucked they are.

The existential dread present in Old is more obvious, and more immediate. “We are going to die here!” has a bit more urgency to it when you’re on a beach that ages you rapidly than when you’re simply muddling through life on a planet that is killing you and everyone you know very, very slowly. Yet it’s not hard to look at both projects and compare them to the sandcastle that two characters build near the end of Old, or the smartphone one character loses to the ocean in The White Lotus. Everything we do and everything we have is impermanent. The earth is finding new ways to remind us of that every day.

Covid-19 anxiety art as an amuse-bouche for climate catastrophe anxiety art

Sydney Sweeney (in glasses) and Brittany O’Grady (clutching a bag) await someone.
Sydney Sweeney (left) and Brittany O’Grady play two of the young people trying to deal with an endless vacation in The White Lotus.

The global uncertainty that defined 2020 underscored and highlighted a question plenty of prospective parents are asking right now: Is it unethical to bring a child into a world that is crumbling? Or is having children an essential act of hope for the future? People have continued to have babies in far more dire situations than the one we’re currently in. Why would we stop now?

Still — if things keep getting worse, have you just brought a child into a world that will increasingly become uninhabitable? What happens when you bring your kids to a place where the rules you grew up with no longer hold sway? How do you cope with the idea that the world might fall apart to such a degree that they won’t have a prom, a graduation, a college education? What if it comes to that?

There are, of course, billions of people on the planet for whom horrible instability has always been a given, but the awful, democratizing effect of both Covid-19 and climate change is that their horrors are somewhat more evenly spread across the species. While the horrors that Covid-19 inflicted on privileged people around the globe have been far less cataclysmic than those inflicted on everybody else, everyone is affected by it at least a little bit, and climate change seems likely to follow a similar template.

Science-fiction writer Charlie Jane Anders recently wrote in her newsletter about just how much her fear of climate change’s effects on humanity has bled into her writing. She also observed, however, that there can be something healing in acknowledging that fear.

I’m honestly terrified of what’s coming, and the fact that we’re already starting to live through heat waves and superstorms and (maybe) zoonotic diseases doesn’t do anything to make the future climate disruption less scary. At all. We are going to suffer, all of us, in ways we’ve barely wrapped our heads around so far. And yet, I don’t think fiction about climate change needs to be disaster porn, or pure misery, or something engineered to “scare us straight.” At all. A lot of my work on climate change is about surviving and adapting.

The trick of being alive right now is pretending that everything we’re doing still matters. There is abundant evidence that nothing might be as important as humans banding together in a last-ditch effort to slow the effects of climate change, such that the planet might continue to support life as we know it. Whatever anxiety Covid-19 has provoked, including in so many artists, feels like an appetizer for the main course.

“We’re still parasites on the Earth!” one character exclaims in The White Lotus, hoping to underline the hypocrisy of his family members, who are squabbling about the right way to organize society. They all know he’s right; they also are powerless to stop being parasites. They are the super-rich, and they are loath to change their ways because it’s easier to be comfortable than to do something difficult but right. Old touches on this idea as well, in a moment I dare not spoil here. Both works are very interested in the ways in which unchecked capitalism has contributed to the state of the world, past, present, and future, but The White Lotus, in particular, is excoriating about the upper classes.

The 2020s might very well become a decade of art forged in paranoia and anxiety at the thought of a warming climate that is outpacing our ability or willingness to act before it’s too late. But art that is terrified about a slowly building apocalypse isn’t a new phenomenon. The 1920s were filled with art set in beautiful baubles of decadence that felt uneasily gleeful (or deeply traumatized) in the wake of World War I and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The 1950s and ’60s were rife with art terrified by the seeming inevitability of nuclear war. We imagine our apocalypses in great detail, perhaps in hopes that we can avert them in reality.

That sense of looming apocalypse is what most unites Old and The White Lotus in the end. Old suggests that at least some of us might find a way out of our current series of existential threats; The White Lotus isn’t so sure. But for as attuned as both works are to this particular moment in time, they also have one eye on what has always been true: We’re always heading toward an ending of some sort. Every beach you visit makes you older by virtue of the time you spend there, just not as quickly as the beach in Old. The planet is going to get you eventually.

Everything we do is impermanent, regardless of whether we halt climate change. Centuries from now, if humanity exists, no one will be talking about Old or The White Lotus or this article discussing the two. People will have new concerns and new thoughts to ponder through their art. The things that are permanent — or at least as close to permanent as our conceptions of time will allow — are the ocean and the sand and the endless chain of life that stretches behind and beyond us. Having a child right now is a tremendous act of faith that things might turn out okay in the end, but having a child is always a tremendous act of faith. The world is always ending, and it’s always beginning, too. You have to make your peace with that somehow.

Or, to put it more bluntly, as one character says after watching a whale surface in the ocean in The White Lotus: “What the fuck?”

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