The many ways human neurological wiring can go kerflooey are the abiding interest of Oliver Sacks, whose story ”To See and Not See” (from his engrossing collection An Anthropologist on Mars) is the basis of At First Sight. The movie version of Sacks’ empathetic and poetic account of real-life struggle describes a man, sightless since infancy, who falls in love with a woman who encourages him to seek a cure for his blindness. He does, and the treatment is effective, for a while. The problem is, having made a full world for himself using his other, enhanced senses, he receives the gift of vision with ambivalence, thrown into a nightmare of sensory confusion; in such turmoil, the inexorable return of his degenerative eye disease supplies a kind of rueful comfort. (It’s Awakenings — based on another Sacks study — for eyeballs.)
It’s not clear who had the bright idea to cast Val Kilmer as blind Virgil (as in the ancient poet who led Dante through hell and purgatory), or to make him a spa masseur, or to install Mira Sorvino as the big-city architect (and spa client) who falls for his ultrasensitive hands. But as directed by Irwin Winkler in this gooey, fuzzy-focus adaptation, these two inwardly absorbed actors, neither with any light in their eyes, so dim the screen that the extraordinary psychological conundrum under observation is barely visible.
Which is quite remarkable, really: Here’s a romance without a spark of excitement (”I saw you better when I was blind,” Virgil tells Amy, although as a character she was always a blur). Here’s a profound meditation on sensory perception in which the first object that greets Virgil’s newly healed eyes is a giant, well-placed Coca-Cola can. Here’s a literary achievement that pays off for author Sacks with a cameo (in a lecture audience), while an eccentric Sacks-like shrink, vamped by Nathan Lane, tells Virgil, ”You’ll see a lot, but none of that matters if you lose sight of what you want.” Whatever that means, it disappears from your mind in a blink. C-