The science fiction/horror genre has often served as a launching pad for story tellers who wish to explore grand themes and still deliver an exciting story. In the late 50’s Rod Serling perfected this balancing act of thrilling, funny, heartbreaking stories mixed with social commentary and personal reflection. In The Twilight Zone television series, Serling worked with top notch writers to craft stories that would entertain viewers week after week, while still delivering a powerful message, all in 30 minutes. My guess is that Fernando Meirelles, director of Blindness, has never seen an episode of The Twilight Zone.
The main conceit of the film is that an infection of unknown origin begins causing an odd “white” blindness among the citizens of an unnamed metropolitan city. Through a chain of events we are introduced to a cast of characters who all seem to be loosely connected. Note that none of the characters are given actual names; we only come to know them for what they represent: doctor, wife, child, thief, whore, victim. Before long the government decides the best course of action is to round up all those infected and ship them off to an abandoned asylum. When the containment crew comes for the doctor (Mark Ruffalo), his wife (Julianne Moore) rashly decides to feign blindness to stay close to her husband. Once inside the asylum-turned-internment-camp Doctor’s Wife uses her gift of sight to help the afflicted, without revealing that she is, in fact, sighted.
From a storytelling perspective the blindness is, of course, not the point. It’s a metaphor and a plot device used to disorient the characters and get them into the asylum, which can now be shown as a microcosm of society. This represents my main problem with the film. Everything in it is used to serve the allegory. The story, which should be first and foremost, is left out in the rain. Every movie tells you how to watch it. It does this by creating a world that is unlike our own but still has it’s own logic that we can recognize and follow. Not in Meirelles film though. Characters operate inconsistently, acting only to make a statement rather than according to any logic. This carelessness with story rots the movie from the inside out.
Which is a pity, because as an example of the technical side of the cinematic craft it is amazing. The techniques used to draw us first into the unnamed city and then into the world of the blind are incredibly effective. Disorienting and sometimes beautiful, the cinematography is also cunning. It works in service to the world that it creates. Bathed in ugly washed out earthtones for long stretches it imprisions us as viewers, then shocks us with the brilliant orange of a flame, or the deep blue blacks of a night sky. DP Cesar Charlone clearly understands his art. It could have been truly stunning if set to work for a better movie.
According to Mary Poppins “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Rod Serling understood that, it’s too bad he’s not around today. He would have known to add the sweetness that this film needs. Because as it sits now Blindness is a tough pill to swallow.