Based on the Chinese-Thai ghost story Jian Gui (2002) by brothers Oxide and Danny Pang, The Eye is a rare American remake that improves on the original instead of regurgitating its set pieces with little thought as to their deeper context or cultural significance. The movie also belongs to a cinematic tradition all but forgotten in recent years: horror flicks that favour character over spectacle, focusing on the protagonist’s courage rather than gore or monstrous acts.
Surprisingly faithful to the source material, the plot centers on Sydney Wells (Jessica Alba), a blind violinist who, after a cornea transplant, begins to see ghosts and ghoulish blurs growling at her. Actually, she hears them too, which I find odd, given the human eardrums aren’t located anywhere near the eye sockets. More to the point, the inconsistency plays against the film’s central concept, turning a unique premise into a somewhat generic series of apparitions, the sort one finds in just about every Asian scary movie since Ringu came out in 1998.
It’s an unfortunate choice from directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud because The Eye gets most of its mileage from the notion that Sydney can’t yet tell what she’s supposed to see, making us more afraid for the woman than she is for herself. Her decisions to walk toward a smoking door and, later, look back at a fiery explosion may strike some as ill-advised, but they seem plausible coming from a person who hasn’t learnt to recognise visual warning cues or protect her eyes.
There’s also a neat bit involving mirror reflections and a photograph, a great, creepy moment that relies on conceptual horror instead of relentless jump scares and musical stings. Of course, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the twist. Suffice it to say I wish The Eye featured more scenes of this nature. As it turns out, thrills and chills become a bit scarce as the story progresses. This comprises the remake’s biggest weakness, though I suppose, in light of the PG-13 rating, fright might never have been the point.
Instead, screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez focuses on Sidney’s fortitude, her unique perspective and her desire to engage the world: “Oh, I bet music looks beautiful!” In fact, every character comes off sturdier in this version, including Ana Christina (Fernanda Romero), to whom the titular eye (and the other one too) used to belong. Sydney also has a stronger support system than most scary movie protagonists, counting among her allies a guilt-ridden sister (Parker Posey), a caring doorman (Danny Mora), an orchestra conductor (Rade Serbedzija), and a love interest who never makes a move (Alessandro Nivola).
Granted, this is about as politically correct a portrayal of a blind person as one can get, but it also proves dead on, reminding me of an old friend, who, like our heroine, always seemed more curious about sight than in need of it. I love the intricacies of Sidney’s rehabilitation, how Dr Faulkner, the aforementioned love interest, breaks down her upcoming challenges: “Because you can see, people are going to expect you to be able to do things that you can’t do: read signs, recognise body language, people’s gestures, facial expressions, or just get out of their way.” Even her clothes feel right, denoting a preference for comfort without neglecting appearance.
On that subject, I should point out Jessica Alba has never looked more attractive. It helps that, for once, she embodies her character down to every gesture, including the use of both arms to shake hands, one to guide the person’s palm and the other to take hold of it. I appreciate as well the attention put on her posture and the convincing way she balances confidence and vulnerability, exuding warmth even as Sydney begins to retreat in herself. This is not the overacting starlet we met in James Cameron’s Dark Angel.
By the third act, I’d fallen in love with Sydney, which, of course, made me terrified the film would turn out a tragedy. It’s worth noting the conclusion deviates slightly from the original, letting events unfold in a more matter-of-fact fashion. The new version also differs in tone, emphasizing empowerment instead of bittersweet irony. Truth be told, I’ve never much cared for the melodramatic flourishes in Jian Gui, so I like this ending better. However, I could’ve done without the cheesy voiceover.
Most remakes fall short when compared to their source material. This one succeeds in spite of it, featuring stronger characters, richer themes, and a more compelling payoff. Some may argue the thriller falters where it matters the most, in the scares department, but I hold the firm belief that the purpose of horror cinema isn’t to frighten us but to discuss our fears in a way no other genre can. Would I have enjoyed The Eye without the creepy spectres? Provided it took the same approach, sure, but I don’t think the movie would have got made.