This pre-credit sequence conveys a lot of information in a very short time. This gives us a pretty good indication of what's in store for the rest of the movie. Red Eye is absolutely packed with detail, some of which provides depth and realism beyond what's normal for a simple ghost story, and some of which is frankly overkill.
When we next see Mi-sun, it's 16 years later to the day. She has just started work as a food and beverage server on KoRail trains. In the scenes which introduce us to the grown Mi-sun and her new job, the film's attention to detail works very much in its favor. We're given a very clear look at the quality of the poor girl's life: to begin with, she's a trainee at a job that's menial at best. She's responsible for bringing in a certain amount of money from sales each evening, or else she's responsible for making up the minimum out of her own pocket. As if this situation wasn't depressing enough, she's assigned to a "red-eye" — a late-night commuter run where everybody's guaranteed to be exhausted — on a line so unpopular that it's being discontinued the following day.
Perhaps someone else could make the best of a situation like this, but Mi-sun is a shy, sad-eyed girl who seems resigned to a dreary life. At least the people on the job with her try their best to make her feel at ease, up to a point. Her immediate supervisor is perhaps reminded a little too closely of her own situation when she began, and is a little brusque with Mi-sun. But the engineer, who, like the train itself, is on his last scheduled run, treats her with affection; and the conductor, who at first seems to be hitting on the new girl, later comes to treat her with a sort of elder-brotherly sympathy.
When the conductor catches Mi-sun treating herself to one of her own snacks, they share a sweetly awkward moment. The conductor tries to spook Mi-sun with tales of the history of this particular line: 16 years ago, he explains, there was a terrible crash, and this very train — running on the same line — uses rebuilt cars from that very accident. They say, the conductor continues, that weird things happen on this train at night... Little does he realize that Mi-sun is the daughter of Oh Jong-hyun, the off-duty engineer whose body was inexplicably found in the engine compartment of the wrecked train all those years ago. Since the cause of the wreck was never established, and since Jong-hyun wasn't supposed to be at the controls, he had been posthumously blamed for the accident. As a sort of tribute to her late, unfairly-maligned father, Mi-sun has specifically arranged to be on this train for its last run.
This would be enough back-story and detail to create a fairly-convincing ghost story; but Red Eye is just getting warmed up. As Mi-sun runs her cart through the mostly-empty cars, we are introduced to some of the other passengers, including a pair of furtive teenaged girls who are obviously up to something; a wild-eyed businessman who likes telling "true" ghost stories about the train; some high school age kids, including a young girl who claims to be able to see ghosts; a couple in the throes of an extremely volatile passion; a trio of Army buddies looking for girls to chase; a languid couple around Mi-sun's age; and a spooky little boy who may or may not really exist.
Each of the passengers has a sort of a role to play in the unfolding story. With the introduction of so many minor characters, the movie's concern with detail starts to become annoying: there are just too many people contributing to the story. It's a little taxing to keep track of them all. There's also just a little bit of strain in the coincidence that brings this particular mix of people together at this particular time: for instance, it's convenient that so many of the passengers have some sort of connection to the supernatural. Then again, everybody else seems to have some connection to the accident: for example, we learn that the conductor had been romantically involved with the girl who did Mi-sun's job on the doomed train...
But never mind the large and oddly-convenient cast: it's the haunting which is both the film's raison d'être and its biggest liability. Here Red Eye's unneccessary complexity bogs the movie down beyond redemption. A ghost story is at its best when its supernatural aspect is both simple and plausible, and Red Eye's haunting is neither.
To put it as simply as possible, the train cars seem to slip out of time and space. Things really get started when a spectral little girl appears on the tracks in a tunnel, causing the engineer to panic and throw on the brakes. No little girl is found on the tracks, but the delay has put the contemporary train exactly ten minutes behind schedule — that is, on the exact schedule of the doomed train 16 years earlier. So far so good — and at the end of the picture, we can look back and explain fairly easily how and why this would happen — but once we've established that the old and new trains are caught in a sort of time warp, there's no consistency in the way this idea is handled:
· Sometimes, the train itself is the ghost: one of the teens looks through the viewfinder of his video camera and sees a totally different car in front of him.
· Sometimes, the ghosts manifest themselves as doomed, empty souls, riding their last train for eternity: Mi-sun suddenly finds herself in an old-fashioned car, where the newspapers on her cart are all dated 1988, and where a crowd of silent, dead-eyed passengers stare straight ahead at nothing.
· Other times, the ghosts exhibit a stealthy, malignant intelligence. Mi-sun's ghostly predecessor, the phantom stewardess, drops out of the ceiling or crawls out of a puddle of ick on the floor... simply because that's what Asian girl-ghosts usually do. Meanwhile, something or someone has filled the little boy's sketchbook with drawings of the passengers on the doomed train; and something or someone crawls out of a wig... while someone's wearing it... in a moment cribbed from the shower scene in Ju-on.
· Yet other times, we see things from the point of view of passengers on the doomed train itself. Our principal connection to the doomed train comes through two characters, arguing newlyweds, who may or may not be characters from our own time trapped on the wrong train. Through them, we see events unfold as though we were present in 1988 — and as though the people aboard the original train were neither dull-eyed spirits nor vengeful monsters, but ordinary people. Glimpses and sounds from the present day seem to be filtering back through time, as though the contemporary characters were themselves the ghosts.
· Still other times, the ghosts actually possess the contemporary passengers — both living and dead. There's inconsistency even in the killing: some people are killed by things that crawl out of the shadows, while others are apparently killed by their fellow passengers who've been taken over by the ghosts. Then, inexplicably, one of the dead passengers comes briefly back to life. Later, a ghost actually tries to crawl into Mi-sun's body.
By the end of the film, the possession aspect of the haunting has become the film's undoing. When we find out the Secret Ghostly Identity of certain people on the train, it's supposed to explain why the story has unfolded the way it has. It doesn't; in fact, the explanation is not only inadequate, it's insane. There is absolutely no way that those particular ghostly characters would behave the way they do.
After such a tortuous build-up, it would be amazing if the climax of the film were anything other than a let-down. The resolution of the haunting is extremely unsatisfying, but then again it's meant to be; I don't really have a problem with the character of the resolution. Rather, I'm disappointed by its mechanics. The whole is significantly less than the sum of its overly-complicated parts. This is to say nothing of the tacked-on "surprise" "twist" ending, which makes no sense at all — and which is actually so stupid and gratuitous that it made me angry for having bothered to pay attention in the first place.
There are some very strong elements to Red Eye. It's certainly a good looking film; and there are some extremely effective, cringe-inducing shocks — as long as you're not looking for some sort of logic behind them. Taken as a whole, though, the movie represents an awful lot of effort expended for a minimal pay-off. It's a shame to use the word "perfunctory" to describe a film made with such technical skill and such concern with superficial detail (in the same way it's unfortunate that a film so beautifully photographed would be called "Red Eye"). Perhaps a better word for it would be... "derailed".