For a movie about immortals, they seem to have primarily mortal concerns. This movie should have concerned itself with the concept of “fates worse than death,” instead of pursuing story points and plot threads we have seen before.
The Old Guard has a lot of things going for it. A big name action star, a Netflix effects budget, popular source material, and a screenplay adapted by the original story author. The movie stays really true to the source material, with one major change, but maybe it should have deviated in favor of a more interesting plot. In particular, the most interesting thread introduced in this movie is never explored, and is used mainly as a teaser for the sequel. For a lot of reasons, I hate that approach. This article is about those reasons, and what I wish the movie had done instead.
1. The Best Theme
When choosing a theme for your story to build around, it should be simple and powerful, something people can immediately understand and also find intriguing. The theme chosen here is somewhat vague, though it seems to be something along the lines of “what would you fight for if you couldn’t die?” That’s a weird question. Most of us operate under tight time constraints imposed in large part by our finite existence. We all know what kind of things we would do if we knew we would die tomorrow. We would take huge risks, seek the adventures we had put off while we had more time, say things that had gone unsaid. But immortality poses the opposite problem.
How would you spend your time if you had an endless supply of it? The menial mundane things you disdain now because they take up your time could be done without diminishing your capacity to do the more exciting things later because there will always be more time available. You could watch every item in the Netflix library, no matter how terrible, and in fact all film, television, YouTube video, and streaming channel, end to end, and still would not have made a dent in your existence. You would then presumably move on to consuming all print media, and then perfecting your own skills infinitely until you achieved some level of godhood, just from being around that long.
But that makes for a really boring movie. No, we need real stakes, not endless monotony, but with death off the table, we have to come up with something else to build the story around, and it’s something the movie teased early on, but never approached in the second and third acts, and that is the idea of a “fate worse than death.”
If you have endless existence, it almost does not matter what you do. Almost. Clearly, we can imagine up for ourselves plenty of activities we would want to avoid for all eternity. In the movie, we get a taste of this idea as one of the characters describes a psychic connection with another immortal trapped at the bottom of the sea for the last 500 years. 500 YEARS?! That’s a long time, and an interesting theme to build the story around. What happens to someone who dies in the same awful way every couple of minutes for centuries? How would her mind change during those centuries of torture? What would she feel when she got out?
We’ve seen themes like this explored in other works, like Groundhog Day and the Count of Monte Cristo. In Groundhog Day, the hell of monotony and routine eventually gives rise to a personal enlightment for Phil Connors, while Edmond Dantes becomes obsessed with revenge against those responsible for his suffering. For me, the most interesting version of our lady in the water is someone who experienced a combination of both of these characters. When she finally gets cracked out of her ocean prison, her brain has gone through so many levels that she wants to make her fellow immortals suffer, not because of revenge or spite, but because while she suffered monotonous death for 500 years, she achieved an enlightened state that she now wants to share with them. She seeks to expose them to the fates worse than death in order to help them achieve the same nirvana she has. Of course, to the ordinary, mortal viewer, this is a nightmare scenario, but that makes it all the more fun to watch because each of the immortals would have to confront their own personal torment to overcome the enlightened immortal villain.
Another issue that bothered me with this movie was that the action was boring. Imagine if the T-1000 was not interested in pursuing John Conner, but just wanted to get drunk and chill. Boring, but possibly humorous. And Charlize Theron’s face during the entirety of the movie conveyed only boredom. She fought as though she didn’t care because she truly didn’t. There was no threat. But instead of her enjoying the prospect of a battle to occupy her for at least a few moments, a la One Punch Man, she takes the quickest route to victory. Why, though? She has no need to do that. She is bored with life, clearly, so why not just fight endlessly, and enjoy the slight excitement?
John Wick taught us that action can be used to tell a compelling story, and as silly as it may seem, the puppy is a simple and compelling motivation the audience can get behind. Charlize Theron’s character, Andy (short of Andromache of Scythia), is motivated by money, I guess. Maybe boredom. Maybe booze. Who even knows anymore? She’s been killing people for ages, and maybe even she has forgotten why.
So imagine how that action would change if she actually enjoyed it. Instead of looking so bored, she would look like she was having fun, instead of looking so miserable the whole movie. Like Goku, she would seek battle, not for bloodlust, but for entertainment. I would have enjoyed that movie a lot more than what we got.
I’m going to leave it at that. Better theme and better action. I think this could have been a 4-star movie, instead of the 2 I gave it.
PS. What is the deal with the weird axe?