Sunday, August 10, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Eye (2008)

If The Eye offends thee, pluck it out of your Netflix queue.


Two weeks ago, I naively assumed the trend of Americanized remakes of Asian horror flicks couldn't produce a film more desperate, derivative or dreadful than One Missed Call.

But after watching The Eye (2008) -- the absolute nadir of the genre (so far) -- I fear worse is still coming. This 2008 Jessica Alba vehicle is frankly the pits: an overlong, stultifying sojourn through the flotsam and jetsam of genre cliches, stock characters and tepid scares. There isn't a an original thought, composition, or special effect in the whole affair, an extremely half-hearted, PG-13 remake of the 2002 Pang Brothers film, Jiàn Guǐ.


The Eye
dramatizes the story of a sensitive blind violinist named Sydney (Jessica Alba). At the behest of her sister, Helen (played by a slumming-it Parker Posey), this young woman undergoes a seemingly successful corneal transplant surgery. Unfortunately, Sydney's new eyes soon cause the musician no end of troubles.

For one thing, Sydney begins to see (and hear; and feel...) unearthly, ghostly visions...ones that appear to foretell the deaths of people around her. Before you can whisper The Sixth Sense (1999), she's also seeing dead people, and -- in an apparent homage to Patrick Swayze -- walking right through them too.

Sydney's hunky doctor believes Sydney's eyes are simply having a difficult time differentiating between important and unimportant things, but Sydney fears she is experiencing something else, a bizarre phenomenon called "cellular memory." Sure enough...she's right, and Sydney learns that her new eyes once belonged to a young woman from Mexico -- a so-called "witch" named Anna Christina. Now, Sydney must investigate Anna Christina's life (and death...) to learn why this Cassandra's transplanted eyes are intent on showing Sydney a world of horrific imagery.


If you think I'm going to deride the film for the hoary premise of organ/body part transplant gone wrong, guess again. It's a derivative genre convention, to be certain, one featured ad nauseum in films such as The Hands of Orlac (1960), Body Parts (1991) and John Carpenter Presents Body Bags (1993). On TV, you've seen it on Circle of Fear (1972) as "Spare Parts" and on Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected in 1977 as "The Hand of Sonny Blue." As goofy (and familiar...) as this old chestnut is -- that transplanted organs carry the memories and the evil of their donors -- I accept it. Why? Because, as critic Roger Ebert often remind audiences, it's not what a movie is about that determines the relative value of the piece, but rather how the movie broaches that material. I consider that an axiom.

And indeed, it's in the "how" that The Eye proves it just doesn't have it. For instance, consider this factoid: Sydney's unearthly visions always include unearthly sounds, and -- every now and then -- the sudden manifestation of blistering, tangible wounds (like burns and scratches). I have a big problem with that. Technically, Sydney shouldn't hear anything out of the ordinary just because she happens to have creepy new eyes. I mean, if she gets the whole sensory package just from the new eyes, then any organ could have provided her these monstrous visions. Right? This movie could have just as easily been titled The Liver. Or My Left Foot.

If "The eyes" are the important organ (and they are, if the title is to be considered valid) then the horror sequences should be limited to sight, not democratically sprinkled across the whole smorgasbord of touch, taste, smell and sound. The cynical part of me fears this is a set-up for a sequel. Who knows what other body parts Anna Christina might have donated before she died? Are we being subtly set up for The Eye Two: The Nose Knows?

You might argue that the sounds and the tactile "feel" of the vision are for cinematic and dramatic effect, and I understand that point, but the film can't have it both ways. For example, there's a very dramatic scene late in the proceedings in which Sydney storms through her apartment and breaks all the light-bulbs (why she didn't just use the light switch is an unsolved mystery...) so it remains dark and she can't see the visions. Then, she ties a red blindfold around her eyes, further disrupting her sight, to keep the pesky visions out. Well, if she can also hear them (and they can touch her) -- as has been clearly established at this point -- then a blindfold isn't going to do a very good job keeping them away...
Like One Missed Call, The Eye also lacks even the most rudimentary sense of consistency in its approach to the supernatural. Sometimes the apparitions appear to be the herky-jerky style we've grown accustomed to in films like Silent Hill. Other times, the ghosties appear normal, yet float a few inches above ground. Sometimes Sydney's visions go right through her body, and sometimes they actually touch her (thus creating burns). Sometimes the visions seem to be all in her head (she sees someone else in the mirror staring back her; but others don't), and sometimes the visions leave behind evidence in the real world (like a hand-print in a pile of spilled sugar...) that could be observed by third parties. Sometimes the visions are related to a central mystery and sometimes (as in the ludicrous case of a ghostly Chinese restaurant), they are totally random. Sometimes the visions are about the past (the Chinese restaurant again) and sometimes they are about the future (a bus accident).

A movie isn't a salad bar. The director (or screenwriter) can't just pick and choose anything he wants and hope that it all fits together coherently in the end. Especially if it is a mystery that the audience is supposed to feel a part of (or curious about.) Now, one might make the argument that the director is asking us to do the same thing as Sydney here: select with our eyes what is important and discard the rest. I would buy that (for a dollar...) if I felt in my heart that the movie always knew where it was headed, as well as the point (or theme) of the narrative. The film's valedictory voice-over, however, makes clear that The Eye has no idea whatsoever.

So here's the deal: All along Anna Christina has wanted, apparently, for Sydney to save a bunch of innocent people involved in a deadly road accident. That's what the visions have really been about (just forget the Chinese take-out place, okay? It didn't happen...). But the reason that Anna Christina died (she hanged herself) was because she was "ultimately powerless" (verbatim...) to "prevent" the death she predicted. But -- huh? Sydney ended up having the same visions and saving everybody!!! So there's no "powerlessness" about it: Anna Christina was obviously just an underachiever. The point of the whole movie is supposed to be, according to the dialogue, that death is unchangeable; that fate is immovable and therefore the gift of insight (as in the case of the mythical Cassandra) is both a "blessing and a curse." But then the movie has Sydney succeed in her rescue mission, proving that fate is actually changeable (like the movie itself). Whatever.

What's the real message of The Eye? Whether you're in the market for tomatoes or eye transplants, don't import 'em from Mexico...
I usually refrain from noting in my reviews that a film is dull. I'm a believer that to say a film is "boring" is only to acknowledge my own failures as a critic. It's the equivalent of saying that -- basically -- I wasn't open to it. No film is "boring" if one attempts to engage with it. But here's a film where truly not much happens for most of the running time, and thus it qualifies as the exception to my long-standing rule.

The Eye is boring as hell.

It takes one hour and three minutes to get to Sydney's realization that her eye donor might be the key to solving her "visions" mystery. D'oh! That's a long (long...) time to go with no forward momentum in narrative; with just the specter of helter skelter visions appearing and disappearing to keep you company.

I perked up precisely once in the entire film: when Jessica Alba's character was in the shower. But even here the movie denied our eyes anything stimulating. God damn you, frosted glass...

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:00 PM

    This review was racist, sexist and in very bad taste. Especially the line about the tomatos.

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  2. I'm sorry it hit you the wrong way. Didn't mean to offend...

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  3. will defintly skip this one. course i generally skip remakes anyway.

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  4. joey_bishop_jr.11:33 AM

    "This review was racist, sexist and in very bad taste."

    Huh? I REALLY must have missed something here.

    Anyway John, I agree with you in this case wholeheartedly- an film can't have it two ways. The Eye means visual, and that's it! The only J-Horror remake I've seen was the first Ring film, and I think that'll be the only one. All genres play on concepts and ideas of what is scary, funny, etc. based on the culture which they come from, and only certain presentations of these universal concepts can be successfully translated over across cultures. Case in point- you mentioned several possessed body part films, but they are all Western presentations of the theme. I don't think that an Eastern take could be remade successfully, as the language of what makes thge film scary is different...

    Just my two cents...

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