“People say,” asserts Sydney (Jessica Alba), “that seeing is believing.” The sentiment is surely trite, but when you watch Sydney make her way along a crowded sidewalk and realize she’s blind, the utterly banal weight of it comes crashing down. Her hole is dug, though, and the poor girl can’t find her way out: she wants to be able to see the sea, Sydney says, “like everyone else. I bet music looks beautiful.”
While it’s not clear what this means — notes on a page? spectral analysis? perhaps music less literally, as a concept? — it is obvious that Sydney’s desire will lead to trouble in The Eye, yet another remake of a popular Hong Kong horror film (2002’s Gin gwai). Long on evocative subjective camerawork and short on intelligent plot, the film is premised on a pseudo-scientific notion — that a cornea transplant not only grants Sydney access to the donor’s visual memories, but also that donor’s ability to see into a “spirit world.” As Sydney comes to recognize the significance of her increasingly creepy visions (essentially, she sees dead people, as her doctor notes derisively), she’s also increasingly removed from her former life. Until its wheels fall off in the last half hour, the film wrestles with the messy links between vision and self-image.
Blind since a fireworks accident at age five, concert violinist Sydney thinks she wants to see, to be “like everyone else.” Apparently at the urging of her sister, flight attendant Helen (Parker Posey), she receives a cornea transplant — a second one, following an unsuccessful attempt at age 12. The film leaves unexplored the sisters’ relationship, except to drop the provocative mention of Helen’s sense of guilt over the accident (“I think I wanted this more than you did,” Helen murmurs as they clasp hands following the surgery; “It’s not your fault, you were only 12,” soothes Sydney), and so you’re left to wonder what’s been left out of this Eye.
What’s left in is partly interesting and partly incoherent. Feeling abandoned by Helen (who’s absent most of the film, on flights), Sydney is progressively troubled by nightmarish images: warnings of deaths, visits from a ghostly Japanese-American boy (this character is left over from the original film, but his storyline is cut back to the point that he becomes merely “the scary Japanese kid”), long empty hallways and gas explosions, and visits from a “Shadowman” who takes people off to death (including her frightened hospital roommate and a car accident victim).
The irregularity of these visions makes Sydney jittery, and soon she worries she’s not distinguishing between the visions and the admittedly daunting material world. And so she does what most horror movie victims do, she seeks help from unhelpful men. Her surgeon, Dr. Haskins (Obba Babatundé), assures her that blurry vision is normal. Her conductor/mentor Simon (Rade Serbedzija) pretends to assuage her fears following a tense recording session: “You need to relax,” he says, then takes her out for latte. At the coffee shop, when she panics on seeing a woman ghost lunging across a table, Simon stops the pretense: “Get a hold of yourself!” he commands, as a terrified Sydney rushes out the door, alone.
Dr. Haskins hooks her up with yet another unhelpful man, a therapist named Paul (Alessandro Nivola), who suggests that she only needs to adjust to a whole other set of sensory stimuli. He suggests she’s only suffering from her own creativity, as “artists” see things other people don’t. To her credit, Sydney doesn’t tolerate such babble: “I’m sure,” she says, “other musicians don’t see what I’ve been seeing.” She’s earnest and bright, but still, Paul grows impatient with his patient. “The eyes are not the problem,” he insists, suggestively. “Whatever it is you think you’re seeing, it’s not real.”
And with that, Sydney begins her own research, a few minutes on the internet producing just the sort of answer such a silly horror movie requires: she’s suffering from “cellular memory,” meaning that she’s seeing images passed on from her donor, a young Mexican woman named Ana (Fernanda Romero). At this point, the film lurches into a different order of ridiculousness: the fact that Sydney has received eyes from a poor and traumatized ceramics factory worker in Mexico echo the complaint of the villains in Turistas. Moreover, the border crossing that she must now enact (she brings Paul along, no small thing, driving the 15 hours from Los Angeles) is a little too literal. Their joint efforts lead to a resolution, but not without costs. Ana’s mother Rosa (Rachel Ticotin) bears the scars of a fire at the factory where she also worked, her devastated face reflecting her grief over Ana — now dead, but troubled throughout her life by the capacity to “see death.”
In Mexico, the visual effects are less subjective. Even as Sydney/Ana’s visions recall a past trauma and look forward to a coming disaster, the storyline is transformed into something quite banal, a cautionary tale about crossing the border into the spirit world. It probably goes without saying that the self-involved, privileged Sydney would pay scant attention to the violence and poverty that make up life in Ana’s pueblo, Sydney being convinced that her salvation, her reclamation of her life, is the most important thing.
The film’s visual tricks are plainly indebted to the Hong Kong original, full of effectively distorted figures and unstable environments. But once the line is clearly drawn between subjective and objective worlds, The Eye turns into just another ill-advised, exploitative remake.