News | Sunday, 22 March 2009

Blinkered vision

There are times when trash can be more illuminating than gold. Allow me to explain. In the realms of science fiction literature, authors are constantly choosing to disassociate themselves from the tag, fearing it will pigeonhole them into a hopelessly restrictive category, to be enjoyed purely by obsessive geeks seeking the fetishistic joys inherent in the genre and shying away from any depth of genuine human emotion.
Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods and PD James’ Children Of Men are all in possession of sci-fi genre staples, yet the authors (fuelled, perhaps, by their finicky agents) feel the need to quash the associations, insisting that the elements in question are purely incidental, falling under the umbrella categories of ‘heightened reality’ and ‘imaginative fiction’. This is all well and good: why should one be restricted by genre? After all, isn’t all fiction an attempt to reach out at ineffable but necessary aspects of human existence, even if uncoiling these problems requires us to exaggerate and intensify certain facets of it?

But there are times when a genre simply works. Science fiction in particular, memorably described by one of its hottest contemporary authors, Neal Stephenson, as ‘idea porn’, has the potential to create a space for speculation and innovation to co-exist within a good yarn. That this sometimes comes off as bloated and inelegant is inevitable (for every 2001: Space Odyssey, there is an Alien Vs. Predator), but it’s hardly a reason to spurn the genre as a whole.
Sadly, snobbery persists. And nowhere is it more evident than in Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of Jose Saramago’s ’95 novel, Blindness, which deals with a sudden breakthrough of city-wide blindness. That Saramago wanted to eschew the mundane particulars of a sci-fi story is fair enough. No explanation for what caused the blindness is ever given, as the focus shifts on the characters and their attempts to survive government quarantine and a world falling into disarray. A lyrical, considered work dealing with the essentials of human nature is well and good if done right.

But throughout the adaptation, one feels that Meirelles would have been better served if he just toned the pretension down and focused on what makes the engine of the story run, rather than ponderously dwelling on pseudo-profundity.
The story is set (on Saramago’s insistence) in an unnamed city and is populated by unnamed characters. After the breakout of the White Sickness - as it becomes known because all those afflicted by it see everything in milky-white - an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife (Julianne Moore, who, miraculously and secretly, is the only person who has retained her sight) are thrown into quarantine and made to fend largely for themselves. The Doctor attempts to cultivate a democratic system for his ward, but slowly begins to realize that his wife, with her sight intact, is in a better position to take control of things. Meanwhile, the brutish occupants of Ward 3, led by Gael Garcia Bernal’s Bartender (who proclaims himself ‘King of Ward 3’) begin to bully the other wards into submission, resorting to violence and enforced prostitution. Having no help from the higher authorities (who seem to have handled the whole epidemic rather sloppily from the very beginning) the Doctor’s Wife feels increasingly pressured to take affirmative action.

The stage is set for a great potboiler - a kind of Day of the Triffids meets Lord of the Flies; the claustrophobic setting, coupled with the characters’ unique predicament, making for intense viewing peppered with observations on the nature of humanity when push comes to shove. Sadly, Meirelles takes the reverse route: he seems intent on largely ignoring what makes the story gripping, in favour of what would make it Important. This is a shame, because as his previous films - City of God and The Constant Gardener - have shown, he is probably one of the most exciting directors around right now. His visceral, virtuoso touch seems crippled by the source material. City of God was a feverish kaleidoscope, a brutal but undeniably dazzling portrait of the Brazilian underworld, while The Constant Gardener enhanced what is essentially a generic conspiracy-thriller with his inspired palette and exotic locales.
Blindness, however, fails to take flight: every time things seem to build, they fizzle out thanks to an anticlimactic plot twist or an awkward meditation on some greater truth. The moments of inspired cinematography are still there, which makes one pine even harder for a more rounded Meirelles experience.


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