At First Sight
Rating -

Drama (US); 1999; Rated PG-13; 128 Minutes

Val Kilmer: Virgil Adamson
Mira Sorvino: Amy Benic
Kelly McGillis: Jennie Anderson
Steven Weber: Duncan Allanbrook
Bruce Davidson: Dr. Charles Aaron
Nathan Lane: Phil Webster

Produced by Rob Cowan, Roger Paradiso and Irwin Winkler; Directed by Irwin Winkler; Screenwritten by Steve Levitt, Irwin Winkler and Rob Cowan

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"At First Sight" allows us to greatly examine the world from a unique point of view. It's like waking up for the first time and seeing skylines of a city, cabs on streets, and the buildings standing tall and proud, as our eyes become dazzled at the breathtaking views before us. We study each shape and movement with absolute intrigue and nourishment. Our faith that that the world is an exciting and flourishing place is renewed, and our souls feel reborn in the splendor of its magnificence. Time and time again do the sights and sounds overwhelm our sense, and seldom do we feel displeased.

This is a movie that allows us to view familiar landscapes with refreshment and open-mindedness like "Pleasantville," except there, everything you saw was fictional. "At First Sight" takes us to places we've been before, but it takes us inside the mind of a person who's never actually seen it for himself. To him, this is a new territory to discover, and therefore, he takes us along with him on his journey of discovery. His travels are restorative to the senses. In the end, we discover a new world right along with him.

Our guide is Virgil Adamson, a masseur, played by Val Kilmer. Since early age, he has lived in a dark, brooding world of blindness, content to see only what he wants to see, and imagining things as he wants them imagined (it's funny how in these movies the blind person makes us feel like we should be blind right along with them). His obligation from seeing the world in reality is no problem with him. In ways, it's actually a better thing; he isn't restricted to see the things we do everyday. His mind can create his own pictures and illusions of what exists around him. It's like reading a book and trying to create mental pictures of the landscapes as the author describes them. The only difference is that here, you have a real place and a real person trying to imagine his own world, as if it were only descriptions of a writer's novel.

In the movie, Virgil meets Amy Benic (an architect) during a massage session, and she's portrayed by the gifted, charming Mira Sorvino. Amy's there because of recent job success, and if there's one thing that makes her feel better, it's Virgil's hands. They are the hands of a god. His touch and movement ease her tension, soothe her soul, and make her feel content with life again. After only a couple of sessions and conversations with each other, they fall in love. And why shouldn't they? Watching them on screen together is like watching one of those old passionate screen romances, like Ingrid Bergman and Spencer Tracy in "Casablanca."

Afterwards, the movie leads us to the big city. Despite the protests of his overprotective sister Jennie (Kelly McGillis), Virgil leaves home with Amy, hoping that his blindness can be omitted by a big New York City doctor. Amy studies the case and finds an operation technique that can reverse the process of his disorder. He takes the risk and goes through the surgery. Doctors warn him that he "could lose sight of what he already sees," but he takes his chances. He wants to see the world as we do. Once his bandages are removed, though, he feels grief-stricken. "This can't be right," he announces. "This can't be seeing! Something is wrong." Indeed, the effects of surgery have restored his sight, but certainly not in the way he anticipated. Originally, he went blind at age 3, and since this is, after all, taking place over twenty years later, the restoration has brought back a sight that he's coped without. To him, bringing it back would be easy, since he's lived with it once before. Twenty years can sure change the possibilities of vision.

The objects and people around him swerve and attune poorly through his eyes. The camera films his trauma through the very pupils which have gone through surgery, and we test the stability of restored eyesight right along with him. Everything seems like a daze. The coordination is unbearable and confusing. During his struggle (as well as ours), an acquaintance leaned over to me and asked, "If he knew that regaining sight was going to be this difficult, why did he go through with the surgery?" That's a good point, but think for a moment about his actions. He knew that regaining sight would be tremendously difficult, yes, but he did it anyway. Doesn't that at least say that Virgil really wanted to see again, regardless of the expected difficulties he would encounter?

The endeavors range from here and there after the operation, and director Irwin Winkler's concept pays close attention to the minor and staggering details of the struggle Virgil encounters along the way. It's as if he's not the only person who has had sight restored to him. Trying to tell the difference between what is real and what is not becomes a strenuous task, even for us. During a discussion, a character holds an object in his hand and asks Virgil to examine it. "Is this an apple, or is this a picture of one?" We're not sure of the answer, either.

The movie is supposedly based on fact, and for once, I believe it. The story comes from the pages of one of the many Oliver Sacks documents of medical miracles. His study also inspired a similar movie called "Awakenings," in which characters were effected with a debilitating sleeping disorder and were then given a chance to cope with its aftereffects, before returning to the state that they started in. There, the characters took us along the journey of their slow recovery, and then eventually the recession that took them back to the state of sleeping. The difference between that movie and this one is, perhaps, the level of effectiveness in the performances. Both films are equally as good, but the Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams characters of "Awakenings" were heartwarming and beautiful. While Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino provide us with some serious and stable acting in "At First Sight," sometimes they seem underwritten, as if a piece of the puzzle is missing somewhere along the lines. Kelly McGillis as Virgil's sister is sometimes distracting from Sorvino and Kilmer, but thankfully, once she's out of the picture, both of them develop as much as the script allows them to. Even though we would have liked to know more about both of them, at least we respect and appreciate them nonetheless.

"At First Sight" was essentially well-received by audiences (as far as I could tell), but some thought that the film was too long for its material. What do you expect, though? Movies like this need as much time as possible on screen: we need the time to get to know the characters, to explore the situations, to witness the recovery, and then to see the person cope with it in whichever way they can. Virgil's loss of sight for twenty years is bound to have some serious side-effects once it has been recovered, and the movie allows us to endure the trauma and hope as much as possible, without being overlong or unnecessary. It also gives us plenty of time to see the disorder and recovery through the vision of the patient. The world surrounding him is refreshing and new to him, as well as to the audience. When you are a passenger of a moving vehicle, close your eyes for a couple of minutes. Try to picture new sights and new landscapes along the roads you have traveled before. No doubt, you visualize things that you want to see, and imagine things that you want to imagine. Is that any different from this case? Better yet, do you even want to open your eyes after you are used to it?

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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