The original version of The Eye was a solid ghost picture, steeped in local culture and grounded in reality. It wasn't a classic, but it was effective, cycling through familiar rounds of slowly building tension followed by inevitable release. The overall atmosphere was gloomy, with only the faintest glimmer of hope. The new version of The Eye is a patchwork quilt that doesn't hold together with the same degree of focus (apologies in advance: it's difficult to avoid ocular references). There are suggestions of ambition, of a desire to infuse the heroine with greater control of her own destiny, but in the end the new version is neither better nor worse than the original -- just different.
Blind since the age of five, concert violinist Sydney Wells (Jessica Alba) undergoes a double cornea transplant and immediately begins seeing things she ought not. Her concerns are quickly waved away as normal, both by her eye surgeon and by Dr. Paul Faulkner (Alessandro Nivola), a specialist in helping cornea transplant patients adjust to their new vision. As Dr. Paul explains, Sydney has to teach her brain how to interpret all the images associated with things she has only heard, smelled, or tasted before.
The directing team of David Moreau and Xavier Palud handle the early scenes with a restrained flourish, making it clear with a montage the practical challenges Sydney faces in navigating through her "new world." A blurry party scene, in which Sydney "meets" her friends and co-workers for the first time, their faces bobbing up in a well-intentioned but confusing melange, also scores points in setting up Sydney's point of view. Sydney's fluttery sister Helen (Parker Posey) offers to help, but Sydney wants to 'go it alone' and so is left all by herself in her deluxe apartment in the sky when she starts to experience nightmares: the walls of her apartment transform into a much more low-rent design, a look in her oven brings on horrible images of burning people, and a little boy in a raincoat keeps looking for his report card. Occasionally Sydney catches glimpses of humanoid apparitions with jagged teeth who unleash angry, piercing screams.
Dr. Paul steadfastly refuses to believe Sydney's stories, though he is more than willing to meet her one night when she calls for help from a Chinese restaurant, and is also available to administer a little tough love when she retreats into her apartment, frightened by the increasingly nasty visions she is experiencing.
In the original, the "Dr. Paul" character fell in love with Sydney, so it was easy to understand his ready availability to help the heroine. In the remake, it's difficult to fathom Dr. Paul's motivation. Sydney expresses herself physically with him in one scene -- touching his face and head to emphasize a point she's making -- but that seems a realistic holdover of her sightless days, and Dr. Paul appears to recognize that as well, even though he noticeably flushes. The most likely explanation is that Dr. Paul is actually madly attracted to Sydney, but restrains himself because it wouldn't be proper for a doctor to mess around with his patient. Alas, the correct behavior in real life doesn't always make dramatic sense in a movie.
The desire to "Western-ize" the original is most apparent with our heroine. In the original, she played with an all-blind orchestra and lived in very modest accommodations; when she regained her sight, she had to leave the group, which helped explain her isolation and alienation from her friends and previous way of life. In the remake, she is the star player in a major city orchestra, which explains her more extravagant apartment in a building with a doorman. She is talked about as someone who is fully able to deal with life, but we don't see much evidence of that.
Really, we never get a clear idea of who Sydney Wells was before her life-changing operation, so it's hard to track what changes the post-operative visions have had upon her. Jessica Alba is beautiful, but she doesn't add any discernible, distinctive personality of her own to the role. As written, it's as difficult to fathom Sydney Wells as any other character in the movie. That wouldn't be an issue if the script didn't make it plain that Sydney needs to do something to make the visions stop. Because we don't know the stakes involved, it's hard to get caught up with whether she succeeds.
As long as we're talking about characters, let's mention the all-too-convenient entrances and exits by several key players. Sydney gets two little scenes with her conductor (Rade Serbedzija), in which he expresses his concern with her post-operative playing, and then "whoosh!", he exits. Sydney's sister Helen also gets out of the way far too quickly, and is out of town when her sister really needs her. The apartment building's doorman appears to work 24 hours a day until he, too, disappears without explanation.
Normally, you expect these things in a ghost picture; convenient contrivances are second nature by now. The better films perform feats of graceful sleight-of-hand, to minimize distraction. I'm not entirely sure why these minor points bothered me so much. Part of my distraction may have been an over-familiarity with the source material, since I've seen the original film five or six times since it was released in 2002.
For all the surface differences, the remake is quite faithful in hitting almost all of the same plot points as the original, save for a discordant final scene that strains to wrap up everything with a pretty bow. Maybe that's what bothered me as much as anything: I just don't see the point of the remake, other than the obvious desire to make more money by producing an English-language version of Danny and Oxide Pang's Chinese-language original.