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Review: 'At First Sight' not worth seeing

Web posted on:
Thursday, January 14, 1999 11:41:16 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- If you've seen the TV ads for "At First Sight," you know that there have only been 20 cases of restored sight in the last 200 years -- this new movie tells the tale of one of those cases. If you've seen the TV ads, you've also already seen the best parts of this movie.

The film is based on the book "To See and Not See," a story about Shirl and Barbara Jennings written by Dr. Oliver Sacks, who also wrote the book from which the film "Awakenings" was adapted.

For some unknown reason, the names of the real people were changed for the film. Val Kilmer plays the lead, now called Virgil Adamson, a blind man living a quiet life in an upstate New York resort community. Mira Sorvino's character, Amy Benic, is a successful New York City architect who escapes to this resort town for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

Virgil and Amy meet cute in this film, which should have been a made-for-TV movie. He's a masseur at a health spa, and she's a client. One stroke leads to another, and they fall in love.

Theatrical preview for "At First Sight"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k

Amy's first challenge is getting past Virgil's overly protective sister, played by Kelly McGillis. Then she finds a newspaper article tucked into a photo album in Virgil's house. The story is about a new procedure that could enable him to see again.

Inconsistencies abound

Now, Virgil has shown no interest in regaining his sight at this point in the movie, and how could he have cut an article out of the paper, anyway? Meanwhile, his sister obviously wants things to stay just as they are. So where the hell did this article come from? This was only one of many inconsistencies that bothered me about this "true story."

Blind since the age of three, Virgil isn't sure he wants the operation. He's adjusted very well to being blind, and his life is comfortable. He suffered through numerous painful operations as a child, and he really doesn't want to be set up for another disappointment. But, in the end, he feels it's worth a try.

There are some interesting issues raised in this film. Virgil doesn't see blindness as a problem; only the sighted people around him feel that he's handicapped. They're the ones craving for him to see, not him. Another plus is that this real-life story doesn't necessarily have a standard Hollywood ending.

Unfortunately for Virgil, seeing isn't all it's cracked up to be, and the couple's love is tested as he struggles to live as a man with sight. Here's where you get all kinds of special effects simulating Virgil's point of view as he sees the world for the first time in years. These effects are actually quite good, but they don't make up for all the other flaws this film has in abundance.

I know this is a true story, and I'm sure that in real life the father deserted his family just as Ken Howard, as Virgil's father, does in this film. But this whole subplot, about a dad who couldn't accept his son's blindness, is handled so awkwardly, it slows to a standstill whatever momentum the film builds.

Visiting January's dumping ground

There's a reason why studios release certain films in January. It's the traditional dumping ground for movies that have no hope for Academy consideration. At this time of year, any decent film was already released -- sometimes by hook or crook -- to meet the December 31 Oscar deadline.

Dr. Sacks seems to specialize in writing about bizarre medical cases which subsequently are them made into feature films. First, there were all those people in a strange coma in "Awakenings." Now we get a rare case of a man regaining his sight. Let's hope he doesn't run out of bizarre diseases, or we may be facing a 6-hour miniseries about the trials and tribulations of the common cold.

Producer/director Irwin Winkler has had great success as a producer with earlier films, including "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" But his track record as a director is shaky, and it would take an exceptional director to wring a believable characterization out of Kilmer. As far as I'm concerned, Kilmer's only made two halfway decent films: His title role in the movie "Batman Forever," and his role as Doc Holiday in the film "Tombstone." OK, "The Doors," too, but that's it. Well, "Top Gun" wasn't bad, but it wasn't his movie.

Yet, all the other flaws aside, the bottom line is that this movie doesn't work because there is absolutely no chemistry between the two leads. There is a total lack of joy in the romance between Kilmer's and Sorvino's characters; I've seen more action in a petri dish, and the only time I believed they were a couple was when Sorvino's character was ready to dump him. I was sitting in my seat silently screaming, "RUN, MIRA, RUN."

Kilmer tends to act in a vacuum with no connection to his fellow actors whatsoever. Sorvino has a line in the film referring to a past relationship: "He has the emotional contents of a soap dish." Ditto for Kilmer and this film.

"At First Sight" is rated PG-13 scenes involving sexuality and nudity, and for brief strong language. Running time: 124 minutes.

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