#8: Blindness

By Brock Wilbur · March 1, 2012

The entire planet loses its sight in a sweeping plague of white blindness — the story of an Apocalypse within.

More than death, cosmic horror, or the darkness, we fear our own frailty.

Sure, warheads raining nuclear annihilation upon our cities and melting the flesh from our skeletons is not preferable, but as we talked about with On The Beach, isn't it much worse to know you've been made into grilled cheese because two bureaucrats you never met couldn't get along? The frailty of society is the basis for so many great films, because unlike aliens or zombies, it isn't a concern the general population actively grapples with on a daily basis. Unless you're me. But I'm the outlier.

While the frailties of a civilization are fascinating to explore from new angles (That's what we'll do if we run out of gas? Jesus!), rarely do we focus on weakness at a personal, or cellular, level. Surprising, considering the human body is the worst designed machine imaginable. We have an organ that does nothing except burst and kill you, if it so desires. How has no one made a horror movie called Appendix yet?

To properly review Fernando Meirelles' 2008 film Blindness, I adopted a process to highlight my physical frailty. I gave the film two viewings, once without the viewing.

Blindness follows a worldwide pandemic of, well, blindness. With this in mind, I stripped the audio track from the film, and listened to it on my iPod in a dark room. A few days later, I went back and watched the movie. Throughout the review, I'll mention when there were divergences of emotion or narrative between what I saw in my head and what I saw on screen.

The film takes place anywhere and stars everyone. That's pretty great, right? In the audio version, I was forced to listen closely to voices, since no names are ever mentioned. Ever. And while I couldn't figure out the setting, I expected the film would show skylines or text. Nope. This review may be clunky to read if I have to assign character names like "The Woman From The Other Place Who Ran By That One Time," but that would also accurately reflect the audio-only experience, wherein you must struggle to pin down exactly who is in the room with you. Thank God real blind people don't have to deal with jump cuts…

One car is holding up traffic at an intersection, infuriating the other commuters. Bystanders come to check out the situation and discover the driver has gone blind, or at least thinks he has. A Good Samaritan in the group offers to drive the man home. Predictably, he steals Patient Zero's car. Unpredictably, he returns to help the man up to his condo, to wait for his wife. Good Samartian quickly wears out his welcome, and leaves without incident, but still steals the car. In the film version, I discover the thief to be Don McKeller, who not only scripted this film, but also wrote, directed, and starred in Last Night, a guaranteed future Filmpocalypse inclusion.

Upon his wife's return, Patient Zero is whisked away to the offices of an optometrist/doctor (Mark Ruffalo), where he passes a waiting room of other patients, including Danny Glover (called it!). The Doctor determines there is nothing physically wrong with the man's eyes, and that it might be neurological. Patient Zero expresses the sensation as a pure white light, which he can see, rather than a total darkness. Visually, the movie uses blurring and fades to white as an extension of these symptoms, which lends a foreboding sensation to otherwise normal scenes. The opening of a window or door can flood a room with over-exposing light, making you fear for the character, or even your own frail vision. Darkness as safety and sunlight as death is a fun juxtaposition.

Still on the run, the Good Samaritan is struck blind just outside a police checkpoint. A series of other people fall victim too, although it took watching the film to understand they all were patients in the Doctor's waiting room: a Prostitute in the middle of her "work", a young boy at play, and even the Doctor himself, whose transition was one of the smartest scenes imaginable for a film like this. Moments after realizing he's been stripped of vision, the Doctor decides the blindness must be a communicable disease, and when the Doctor's Wife tries to hold him, he shoves her away. Outside of 28 Days Later, no one in film ever acknowledges how screwed they are. From the audio portion, it was in this section of the plot that I recognized a small storybook bell that would ding each time a character lost their sight.

This brings us to the subject of The Doctor's Wife, Julianne Moore. As the disease continues to spread, it becomes clear that she is immune. When the government comes to quarantine her husband, she lies and claims to also be blind, so they won't be separated. From this point on, Blindness gets dystopian like whoa.

Transported to a decommissioned sanitarium, the military expects them to take care of themselves, and turns them loose to pick a "ward" and elect a representative. The seven people in the room form a human chain and try to select beds, find their rations, and set up their life, with government instructional videos playing behind them. Beyond the Doctor and his Wife, there is the Boy, the Prostitute, Patient Zero, and the Good Samaritan. The last two figure out each others' identity and engage in the worst fight ever. In audio, it sounded brutal; on screen, two newly blind enraged men managed to do more damage to objects fall over than to each other. "He stole my car!" shouts Patient Zero. "Who cares," replies the Doctor, "You're blind."

But his Wife is not, and without her, they would be lost. While no one else knows her secret, the Wife removes dangerous hazards, leads every walk, and bathes the group in the communal showers. When the Samaritan trips over exposed metal, she makes her best attempt at patching him, then approaches the military guards to ask for aid. They threaten to shoot her. Aside from the military interaction, it was near impossible to figure out what was happening in this section from the audio, except for the presence of montage-ish music.

Soon, more people are delivered. As we meet them, the camera blurs everyone out of recognition, making us just as unsure who the newbies are. One of them is the wife of Patient Zero, and their struggle to find each other is incredibly touching. There's an influx of even more refugees behind them. Ward One, and the other two wards, are filled to capacity, vastly increasing the danger of each movement. Giant sections from this were lost of me in audio, but that's because we follow the Doctor's Wife as she serves as savior to the entire facility, secretly helping all those in need. This section is also far worse to watch, because you're able to see the naked and deranged stumbling, and the urine, feces, and blood now covering the hallways and walls.

Danny Glover finally makes his way to the wards, and has been outside long enough to hear the last of the radio broadcasts. The world tried to continue on, pretending this disease was isolated. After epidemics of car and plane crashes, people became confined to their homes, while they waited for the disease to inevitably arrive. The face of this ignorant resistance is Sandra Oh, as a health official, who must eventually concede that she, too, has gone blind. In the wake of this apocalyptic news, and a shooting spree from the itchy-trigger-fingered guards, a member of Ward Three declares himself king and decides he will no longer accept the commands of The Doctor.

This lunatic (Gael Garcia Bernal) acquires a gun, takes all of the food rations from the other two wards, and demands payment. When he controls all the valuables (which are mostly useless or sentimental anyway), he demands nightly donations of women. These sequences of violent and bizarre sexual violence were upsetting as audio, and the director recognized that's all he needed. On film, they are obscured in darkness with brief glimpses of movement, as our main character could not see anything either.

Though the rest of the ward story contains revenge, strength, and moments that are simply bizarre, the most powerful arc that resolves in this section is one I completely missed in the audio, for good reason. The Doctor and his Wife experience the decay of their relationship as she slips into the role of mother and protector, leading him by the hand and even wiping him. The Prostitute, one of his former patients, shares many small physical moments with him, that no one else would notice, but the Wife always sees. When Doctor and patient consummate their relationship, the Wife walks in and directly addresses the situation, in a conversation that moves from pain to joy in a few short lines. In the audio version, I spent four minutes listening to them make love, having to wonder the entire time if she was standing right behind them. Brutal.

Escaping the confines of the ward, the film gives this makeshift "family" an extra half-hour to explore the post-apocalyptic landscape. Elements of the genre may have been present before, but nothing screams "zombies" like this final act: shambling bodies in the streets, and people who have not yet died, but also have nowhere to go. Children wrecking a store-front window; anarchy for anarchy's sake. People eating from a trash can, since they have no idea what it is. As the Wife ventures alone into a grocery store, hundreds are stumbling through, unable to discern what kind of canned food they have, no find a way to open it. When she finds a few supplies, they can tell by her determined movement that she's got something they need, and the mob almost tears her apart. Relocated back to their home, the family now lives and loves together, depending on the unending strength of a single woman, whose super power is something we take for granted every day.

The frailty of the human body is nightmarish enough as the subject of a film, but the experience of removing one of my five senses while "watching" it was, in most cases, more powerful — if not narratively, then at least in the fear created by my displacement. In a perfect world, theaters that screened this movie in '08 should have turned the projectors off somewhere in the middle, and let the audience experience this film from this perspective. Not one of a God, but from frailty. Blindness asks us not to look at a social issues, but at ourselves. If we can.