Director: Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover, Alice Braga
Running Time: 120 min.
** (out of ****)
“I get it…they’re blind.” That's all I kept thinking while watching Blindness, a misguided effort in love with its own gimmicky premise. The film attempts to function as both thought provoking science fiction and deep social commentary but in the end it doesn’t tell us anything. It takes an ugly, cynical look at the times we live in, expecting us to believe that in the middle of a health crisis our government wouldn’t just turn our backs on us, but lock us in prisons, torture us and commit mass murder “Big Brother” style. Just the movie we need right now. All of that would actually be fine if it served some kind of purpose other than to facilitate a filmmakers’ desire to make a pretty looking movie complete with blinding white lights and gratuitous out of focus photography. It's one of the more annoying, unnecessary devices I’ve seen used in a movie this past year and something I’d expect to see from a mainstream hack filmmaker rather than the gifted director of City of God and The Constant Gardener.
The whole film does feel curiously mainstream and lazy with the only highlights being the performances of Ruffalo and Moore, as you probably guessed going in. They’re members of a select club of actors who are able to take pretty much any project they want and not have to worry about it sinking them and it’s easy to see why they were attracted to this material, which on paper probably looked like an intriguing meditation on human nature. What translates on screen instead is a poor man’s version of Children of Men, crossed with a Saw film. I was actually waiting for Jigsaw to show up announcing: “Let’s play a game…you’ve lost your sight…” The movie drags us through hell all for the sake of telling us that desperate situations bring out the worst in people. You don’t say?
It boasts a somewhat promising opening in which a man caught in a traffic jam (Yusuke Iseya) suddenly loses his sight and is driven home by a concerned stranger who reveals himself in little time to be a lowlife creep. Soon, he goes blind as do many more residents of this unnamed city and presumably more people across the nation. The sudden blindness, unlike the typically diagnosed kind, is strangely characterized not by an absence of color, but a blinding white light. Sensing an epidemic the government rounds up the infected, quarantining them in a dirty, run-down abandoned hospital. Among them is the optometrist (Ruffalo) who treated the first patient and his wife (Moore) who fakes being blind so she can stay with him. How she somehow remains uninfected is never addressed, nor are we given any explanation as to how or why everyone else is.
The other supporting characters are just stock characters put in place so writer Don McKellar can hammer us over the head with allegorical Lord of the Flies nonsense about how primal urges take over during traumatic ordeals of life and death. There’s a bitchy prostitute with sunglasses (pitifully played by Alice Braga), a old wise man with an eye patch (Danny Glover) and the “King of Ward 3” (Gael García Bernal) who takes over the hospital in an uprising. None of these characters have names, a detail reflective of the overriding pretentiousness of the story and also very fitting since it’s impossible to relate to any of them.
The film wrestles between wanting to be science fiction thriller and an artsy prestige project, almost teetering in a perpetual state of indecision. It seems to be striving for stark realism but at the same time features logic holes big enough to drive a truck through. The idea of blind people threatening other blind people WITH GUNS is too ridiculous to even address with a straight face and the one character with sight mopes around in a state of helplessness. You’d figure inserting a person who can see into this dire situation would be like sending Michael Jordan to the floor in a junior high school basketball game, but it isn’t until deep into the third act that Moore’s character actually decides to do something. Of course this is well after all the rape and murder she’s witnessed. The most pretentious scene in the film comes when out of nowhere (SPOILER ALERT!) Ruffalo’s character cheats on his wife just to make the ham-fisted point that in desperation we cling to any form of intimacy we can, whether we can see or not.
A few reviews I've read have compared the film to an episode of The Twilight Zone, except that series that didn’t just merely introduce themes and ideas, it explored them. It wouldn’t just tell us that in life and death situation survival instincts take over and we turn on each other. It would have asked why and given the characters a reason for doing it that said something about the world we live in. These movies should leave us thinking about what we'd do and enable us to put ourselves int he characters shoes. Last year’s The Mist already proved that can be done very well.
The plot here really doesn’t differ all that much from a direct-to-DVD horror movie in its execution, though its lofty intentions are far worse. It actually thinks it’s saying something important and delivering a spiritual parable. Instead, it’s just going through the motions of a plot we’ve seen a million times before, but using fancy lighting. The decision to visually depict the blindness as if that will get us to identify with the victims’ plight is not only laughable but distracting, making it difficult to see what’s happening and creating more of a distance between the viewer and the story. Maybe Meirelles realized that watching blind people stumble around isn’t an ideal way to spend two hours so instead resorted to visual flourishes to spice things up. This truly is a gimmick and nothing more, without once making an intelligent attempt to build on its promising premise.
Insultingly, the film condescends further by attempting to work an ending message of hope into its ugly worldview. Ruffalo’s character is simply referred to as “Doctor” in the credits while Moore is the “Doctor’s Wife.” Their scenes together and the idea that he must lean on his wife to survive are the most interesting, yet despite the noblest efforts of both actors, one and two word labels would still sum up their characters. Moore is an actress I’d usually want to see in anything, very often fluctuating between more mainstream projects and artier fare, but the big problem here is Meirelles doesn’t have a clue which he wants this be so this time she stars in two flops for the price of one.
There must have been something somewhere in Jose Saramago’s acclaimed novel if it attracted this kind of talent but Meirelles clearly wasn’t the director equipped to deal with it. Its nearest relative is obviously 2006’s Children of Men and while that film was overpraised I’ll at least admit it took its ideas seriously and form followed function. But how many more stories about run-down, decimated futures run by evil governments can we watch without anything new being said? Blindness is a film that wants to be full of ideas, but instead ends up just being full of itself.