Friday, February 8, 2008

The Eye: Not worth a second glance

The Eye (2008) • View trailer
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.8.08

If mood and atmosphere were everything, The Eye would be a modestly effective little chiller.

Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud maintain a reasonably edgy level of suspense — for awhile, anyway — and set up all sorts of spooky little interludes, most of them punctuated by unnecessarily loud blasts from Marco Beltrami's soundtrack (the better to make viewers jump, you understand).
In one of this weak film's more successfully unsettling moments, Sydney
(Jessica, left) peers into her bathroom mirror and sees the reflection of an
entirely different young woman. But when Sydney begins to conflate her own
identity with that of this mysterious stranger, it's just another of the many ways
in which this laughable failure loses its vision.

Unfortunately, the story makes no sense whatsoever.

All concerned seem to recognize this rather serious problem, since the film opens and closes with lengthy expository voice-overs by star Jessica Alba, whose monologues — particularly the one at the end — apparently are intended to decipher plot points that aren't explained a whit in Sebastian Gutierrez's ham-fisted screenplay.

These little speeches don't help. Indeed, the concluding soliloquy prompts snickers of unintended laughter.

The Eye is yet another American remake of a recent Chinese horror film — in this case, 2002's far more effective Pang brothers chiller, Gin Gwai — that "borrows" its premise from a hoary Hollywood horror cliché going back to the dawn of time: the transplanted body part with a mind of its own.

The most famous early example is 1935's Mad Love, an adaptation of Maurice Renard's oft-filmed short story, "The Hands of Orlac," which starred Peter Lorre as an insane doctor who operates on a pianist's injured hands, with deliciously awful results.

In this modern update, Alba plays Sydney Wells, a renowned Los Angeles concert violinist. Sydney is talented, intelligent and independent; she also happens to be blind, thanks to a childhood incident with firecrackers that still haunts her older sister, Helen (Parker Posey), who feels responsible for the accident. After a brief prologue that establishes the degree to which Sydney has built a successful life and career, we're whisked into an operating theater as she undergoes a double corneal transplant.

The goal: restored sight.

(So why, then, isn't this film called The Eyes, plural? Good question...)

The procedure works, but rather too successfully. After a few days of blurred disorientation, Sydney gradually realizes that some of the people — and things — she now sees aren't really there. Indeed, before savvy filmgoers can even mutter the phrase "I see dead people," Sydney comes to that conclusion all by herself.

And this is where the confusion sets in. The primary plotline suggests that Sydney only glimpses specters who were victims of violent trauma: ghosts with unfinished business on our mortal plane. But no, at least two characters check out fairly peacefully, so that theory flies out the window.

The worst part, though, is that these departing souls are accompanied by nasty, shadowy black "guides" ... which seems a rather unpleasant way for folks to embark on their journey to the afterlife, if you ask me.

More crucially, these ghastly phantoms strongly resent being seen by Sydney, and frequently express their displeasure.

Translation: plenty of smash-cut close-ups of something horrible rushing at our heroine, who obligingly sets up such jolts by peering through windows and into closed spaces, and squinting through her apartment door's security peephole.



But then the story takes another detour, and it turns out that Sydney actually is "seeing" things that were experienced by the previous owner of her new corneas. Except ... this doesn't make sense either, because that person never would have met the floating cadaver in the elevator leading to Sydney's apartment, or the little boy who apparently jumped to his death from an upper floor of her building, rather than show his school report card to his father.

At about this point, you may as well throw up your hands. Gutierrez just makes stuff up as he goes, giving this film's directors yet another chance to send Sydney into a dark, deserted apartment or hospital corridor.

About the latter: Sydney winds up in the hospital twice as this story proceeds, and healthcare-induced budget cuts must be a lot worse than I thought, because the place seems to have zero staffing after hours. No nurses, orderlies, cleaning crew? Pul-leaze.

Anyway, with grudging assistance from the neural specialist — Alessandro Nivola, as Dr. Paul Faulkner — enlisted to help Sydney adjust to her restored eyesight, our heroine eventually embarks on a mission to learn the identity of her donor, and find out why this person's memories/ nightmares/visions (whatever!) keep haunting her.

Astonishingly, Gutierrez's script then pulls another reverse in the third act: one guaranteed to annoy fans who prefer their horror films to have bite and conclude with lingering anxiety, rather than candy-coated closure.

Dumb, dumb, dumb. Creaky William Castle flicks like The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill made more sense.

Alba handles all this nonsense with reasonable conviction, although she's far more credible as a blind woman than as a violin virtuoso. She manages her character's mounting distress without collapsing into sniveling hysteria; we can be grateful that Sydney doesn't turn into a helpless chick-in-jeopardy.

Posey's wasting her time, though; she and Alba have zero chemistry. Not for a moment do these two behave like actual sisters.

Nivola can't seem to decide whether to play his character as a compassionate guy or a jerk, and the ambiguity is distracting.

Actually, the most persuasive acting comes late in the game, when Sydney's quest takes her to Mexico, allowing a short interlude with supporting actress Rachel Ticotin; she, at least, knows how to sell a scene.

Ultimately, The Eye is little more than a series of disconnected gotchas that do not a story make. Some of the sequences are spooky, to be sure, but the film's effectiveness wanes when we're unable to place such random elements in any sort of context.

Alba needs to exercise more care with her projects, or her 15 minutes of fame will pass awfully quickly.

Both The Eye and the recently released Awake are dead-on-arrival hack jobs; last summer's Good Luck Chuck, while modestly successful, isn't the sort of thing to grace a résumé with pride.

Smarten up, Jessica. Only a nimrod could have seen anything promising in The Eye.

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