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(1998) (Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young woman and her new, blind boyfriend must deal with the consequences of him undergoing surgery that will allow him to see for the first time in his life.
Amy Benic (MIRA SORVINO) is a harried New York architect who heads to the Bear Mountain resort and spa hoping for some relaxation. There, she meets and then quickly falls for Virgil Adamson (VAL KILMER), her charismatic masseur who turns out, much to her initial surprise, to be blind.

Although she returns to her big city job, Amy can't get her mind off Virgil, a point noted by her partner and ex-husband (STEVEN WEBER). It's with much anticipation then, that Amy presents Virgil with an option to see for the first time in his life. It seems that Dr. Charles Aaron (BRUCE DAVISON) has perfected a new experimental surgery to correct the congenital cataracts that have blinded Virgil since early childhood.

Even so, Virgil -- who thinks his life is fine and long ago grew tired of doctors' tests -- isn't enthused about the idea, nor is his big sister, Jenny (KELLY McGILLIS), who protectively raised Virgil when their father (KEN HOWARD) hit the road many years ago. Nonetheless, Amy and the surgeon eventually convince Virgil to undergo the surgery.

From that point on, the now romantically attached couple try to deal with Virgil's unforseen reactions and complications to seeing for the first time in his life, as well as their impact on the couple's relationship.

If they're fans of Kilmer or Sorvino, or of romantic dramas, they might, but this film won't draw a great deal of kids, especially in the preteen range.
For scenes involving sexuality and nudity, and for brief strong language.
  • VAL KILMER plays a blind masseur who most cope with the overwhelming sensations of suddenly being able to see for the first time in his life. Beyond getting testy and frustrated at moments and bedding Amy, he's an okay role model.
  • MIRA SORVINO plays his caring and concerned girlfriend who eventually persuades him to undergo the experimental surgery so that he can see. She also sleeps with Virgil.


    OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
    If this film's plot sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because you've possibly heard of the real life events that inspired it. However, the more likely reason is that it also bears strong narrative resemblances to the 1990 Robin Williams/Robert De Niro film, "Awakenings."

    With that film and "At First Sight" being inspired by the writings of Dr. Oliver Sacks (the first based on his 1973 novel of the same name and the latter based on the story "To See and Not See" in his 1995 novel "An Anthropologist on Mars"), such similarities shouldn't come as a huge surprise.

    Both feature characters who've been affected by a disability for all of their adult life and from which they're miraculously freed by the marvels of "modern" technology. The plots, that obviously contain another character who serves as a catalyst for that "awakening" (a doctor in the first and a romantic interest here), then follow both characters' reactions of finding themselves in a world that's now foreign to them.

    Of course, setbacks -- while presumably holding firm to the truth of the real-life stories -- inevitably follow, and although this film isn't quite as sad as the end of "Awakenings," it contains all of the proper ingredients for a mild roller coaster ride into the world of mostly predictable melodrama.

    While most moviegoers can't imagine what it would be like to have never seen or to be "frozen" in a catatonic body (as was De Niro's character in "Awakenings"), "At First Sight" has a harder time succeeding for several reasons. First, the story simply isn't as intriguing as that found in the other film. However, it's also much harder to represent what Kilmer's character goes through upon regaining his sight than with De Niro reacting to the "new" world around him.

    Although the concept -- of having a person blind from birth suddenly being able to see as an adult and whether their visual cognition is physically or cognitively based -- is intriguing and offers a myriad of wonderful opportunities and frustrating complications, it's a near impossible task to fully and satisfactorily present on film.

    Coming off as more of an academic/research subject than a cinematic one -- despite the ensuing inherent conflict that works on a dramatic level -- it's difficult for the audience to grasp this unless they've been in very similar shoes (which is highly unlikely).

    Although director Irwin Winkler ("The Net," "Night and the City") shows Virgil stumbling about as he tries to make sense of what he's visually perceiving, as well as distorted images intended to present his visual point of view, the whole concept works better on an intellectual, rather than a visual (for the audience) level. As such, while the plot of "At First Sight" has that intriguing premise, it's only the sheer star power of the leads that makes the film work and keeps it from falling too far into the realms of a made-for-TV melodrama.

    Audiences love seeing the pairing of attractive performers in romantic dramas, and those of both genders couldn't ask for much better than Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino. The two make an attractive and believable couple, and their "easy on the eye" good looks prevent the audience from fully realizing that the material from which the performers are working -- intellectual and conceptual elements aside -- is standard issue dramatic fodder.

    There's never any doubt that a romance will blossom between the two, or that the medical procedure will be a success. As in any similar film, however, freshman screenwriter Steve Levitt delivers the inevitable complications -- both medical and romance-based -- that are supposed to heighten the drama.

    While one can never be sure how much artistic license has been taken, the story simply needs a bit more pizzaz to fully engage the audience. Sure, some in the audience will get teary-eyed, and to its credit the film does click at times on an emotional level, but it never really completely worked for me (and I'm often a sucker for films like these).

    Val Kilmer ("The Saint," "The Ghost and the Darkness") gives a decent performance in a role that's normally earmarked for award considerations (performers love to play characters with disabilities or other medical conditions -- a la De Niro in "Awakenings" and many, many others), but I doubt it's going to happen here.

    While he does a good job playing a blind person, it's difficult to fully buy into that notion (since you know that in reality he can see), and trying to portray the reactions to such confusing and overwhelming stimuli -- as earlier noted -- is a near impossible task to convincingly pull off. Kilmer gives it his best shot -- and for the most part it works -- but it's never inherently believable.

    Mira Sorvino ("The Replacement Killers," "Mimic"), who won an Oscar for her role in "Mighty Aphrodite," unfortunately doesn't have as much substance in which to sink her thespian teeth. Pretty much relegated to the supporting and concerned "second fiddle," Sorvino does the best with what she's been given, but there's not a great deal of depth there for her.

    Other performers, such as Kelly McGillis ("The Accused," "Top Gun") as Virgil's overly protective sister and Nathan Lane (""Mouse Hunt," "The Birdcage") as a briefly used psychologist/therapist, are given even less with which to work, and easily could have been replaced with lesser known stars.

    Even so, the film -- whether true or not to the real story -- is too predictable and features too many symbolic bits of forced ideological dialogue about not really seeing something until you really look at it, etc... Although the film does make one pause to reflect on how most everyone takes their senses for granted while also offering an interesting educational/physiological question about the true meaning of sight, as an overall piece of dramatic work it's only moderately successful. Because of that, we give "At First Sight" a 5.5 out of 10.

    Profanity is moderate due to the use of 6 "s" words along with other milder profanities and religious expressions. Several sensual massages occur, that later lead to several sexual encounters between the two leads, but we never see much more than fleeting or silhouetted explicit images. Another scene briefly takes place in a strip club where we see scantily clad women, but nothing that's extremely explicit (although if one looks carefully, bare-breasted woman can briefly be seen in a mirror).

    Beyond some social drinking, familial issues, and the thematic elements of the reactions of being able to see for the first time in one's life, there's little else of major concern here with which one could object. Nonetheless, you may still want to take a closer look at the content that's been listed should you be concerned with the film's appropriateness for you or someone else in your home who wishes to see it.

  • We see a wine bottle next to Virgil's bed.
  • Virgil and Amy have wine with their meal.
  • The two have wine at a party (as do others).
  • Virgil and his therapist have beer in a strip club.
  • People have drinks at a bar.
  • People drink beer at a hockey match.
  • There are several brief shots (on a monitor) that show the surgical handling of Virgil's eyes, but it's not very gross (unless the thought of that is unnerving).
  • Virgil has a tiny cut on his face after accidentally walking through a glass wall.
  • Virgil and Jenny have just a bit toward Amy when she suggests surgery for him (and the two briefly have bits of both toward each other as the strains of him trying to adapt to seeing cause them to behave that way).
  • None.
  • None.
  • Phrases: "Jerk" and "Screwed up."
  • None.
  • A minor bit of such music occurs during the film.
  • None.
  • At least 6 "s" words (including one that's also written as "pigsh*t"), 4 hells, 1 damn, and 11 uses of "Oh my God," 9 of "Oh God," 6 of "G-damn," 3 each of "God" and "Jesus" and 1 use of "Jesus Christ" as exclamations.
  • We see just a brief glimpse of the side of Amy's bare breast as she undresses for her massage. This massage, applied by Virgil, along with a subsequent one, are somewhat sensual in nature (the 2nd shows part of the side of Amy's bare butt and Virgil also takes the massage up her thighs to her hips -- although no explicit nudity is seen).
  • After seeing Virgil and Amy kissing outdoors (with his hand running along her butt), we then see them doing the same in bed, but without clothes. However, due to the way the scene is shot, we don't see any explicit nudity in this sensual scene (that does imply, however, that they have sex).
  • Back at Amy's place after his eyesight has been restored, Virgil tells her that he wants "to see it all." She's a bit shy at first, but then removes her clothes and we see her in her bra and panties. He then removes her bra (we see her breast in silhouette) and then pulls her down on top of him (where we do see part of her breasts).
  • Virgil and a therapist have beers in a strip joint where we briefly see scantily clad dancers (including one whose breasts are just covered by her hair) as well as glimpses of topless dancers in the mirror behind the two men.
  • We see Virgil and Amy together in the shower kissing and caressing each other, but don't see any explicit nudity.
  • A person on the street smokes.
  • Jenny mentions that their mother died when Jenny was eighteen and that their father also left them (thus causing Virgil to think his blindness caused the latter). Virgil later confronts his father regarding that.
  • The historical accuracy of this story (that's based on true events).
  • Virgil's complacency and acceptance of his blindness versus Amy's wanting him to have another chance to see.
  • The sights (and other senses) that most people take for granted.
  • Virgil accidentally walks through a glass wall that shatters and barely cuts his face.

  • Reviewed December 2, 1998 / Posted on January 15, 1999

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