In defence of Vanilla Sky

Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise reteamed, following Jerry Maguire, on Vanilla Sky. It's a film with far fewer fans...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This article contains spoilers for Vanilla Sky.

Memorable moments – it seemed to be what Cameron Crowe had a knack for creating. Lloyd Dobler stood with a ghetto blaster held aloft in Say Anything, the ‘Show me the money’ or ‘You had me at hello’ scenes from Jerry Maguire, the singalong of Tiny Dancer or the imminent plane crash in Almost Famous. It also seemed Cameron Crowe could do no wrong on the wave of the success of those films, but then there came a film which, instead of creating memorable moments, everybody seemed to want to forget all about.

In 2001, Cameron Crowe made the much maligned Vanilla Sky.

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It seemed to really rub people up the wrong way upon release. Was this because it wasn’t what they were expecting from a Crowe and Cruise team up (this was very different from Jerry Maguire)? This is Cameron Crowe’s first non-original film; his previous film, Almost Famous, was semi-autobiographical, regarding his days working as a reporter for Rolling Stone in his youth. Vanilla Sky is a remake of the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) by Alejandro Amenbar.

It’s not a straightforward remake, it adds layers upon layers to the original, which is a great film in its own right. They are both so different it’s redundant to undergo a comparison. But Alejandro Amenbar says “Cameron has all my respect and admiration. Respect, for having plumbed the deepest meaning of the work. Admiration, for having sought new viewpoints and a fresh approach to the mise-en-scene, giving the film his own unmistakable touch. Vanilla Sky is as true the original spirit as it is irreverent towards its form, and that makes it a courageous, innovative work. I think I can say that, for me, the projects are like two very special brothers. They have the same concerns, but their personalities are quite different.”

One of the main elements it shares is the casting of Penelope Cruz, who reprises her role from the original film. But before we get to the central romance of Vanilla Sky, the most Cameron Crowe aspect of the film, we get to begin the film with something opposite. The film opens within a nightmare.

The first images are bird’s eye shots of Manhattan, looking down upon the skyscrapers and Central Park. Cinematographer John Toll makes these distinctive and large scale whilst informing the plot and referencing lead character David Aames’ fear of heights. From these aerial shots, we head towards the Dakota building, the famous home of John Lennon, and the building he was shot outside of in 1981 by Mark Chapman. This forms a bookend for the film, as the end credits open with Paul McCartney performing his self penned song inspired by the film’s title. There are plenty of moments of synchronicity that run through Vanilla Sky, and sometimes you can be unsure if they were intended or happy accidents. This not a criticism, it’s an aspect of there being so many elements that are stuffed with meaning.

The first line of dialogue heard is the original title, “abre los ojos”, from the voice of Penelope Cruz, which then changes to Cameron Diaz’s voice saying the words “open your eyes”. Everything In Its Right Place by Radiohead plays on the soundtrack, and everything does seem to be normal. We’re in a Tom Cruise movie where he has a charmed life in an ultra stylish apartment, he drives out into New York in his stunning car. But, there is something wrong. As he approaches Times Square, there is not a person in sight. It’s deserted.

I’m surprised these scenes aren’t more iconic. It’s a tremendous achievement to pull off, and looks stunning and incredibly eerie. It should be remembered as one of the most iconic images committed to screen. Tom Cruise running is an iconic image of modern American cinema, but combine that with a deserted Times Square, and the overwhelming influx of culture that surrounds him and you have a perfect distillation of the times. Is this a man drowning in the culture of the modern world? A man absolutely terrified to be on his own? Whatever the fears that fuel this nightmare, it is a memorable opening, and the troubles for this character are backed up by excerpts of what we believe to be a therapy session.

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Cameron Crowe has called Vanilla Sky “A movie of clues and signposts, like the cover of Sgt. Pepper, every time you look at it you see something different.” Some of these clues can be seen during the Times Square sequence and early on in the movie. A film showing in David Aames’ apartment is Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn, which plays a big part in Sofia’s character in the film, as does the French New Wave depiction of romance that is seen in the latter half of the movie, referenced in the posters for Jules Et Jim and Breathless on the walls. The production designer responsible for these was Catherine Hardwicke, who went on to direct Thirteen and Twilight; this was her penultimate film as a production designer.

The central image on one of the video screens behind Tom Cruise plays a Twilight Zone episode, Shadowplay – an episode from series 2 of the original 1960’s TV anthology show, which concerns a man accused of committing a murder who is adamant that the world around them is his recurring nightmare. He tries to convince those about to execute him that this is the case. This is probably the first hint, or clue, as to which direction Vanilla Sky will go in. Otherwise the opening of the film seems pretty typical for a Cameron Crowe film.

He’s re-teaming with Tom Cruise, who plays charm and money really well; he has all the right friends, as referenced in the R.E.M song which plays on the soundtrack – even Steven Spielberg turns up in a cameo at his birthday party. (Cameron Crowe later returned the favour appearing as a commuter reading a paper in Minority Report.) There’s banter with Cameron Diaz, and his best friend (Jason Lee) and then he meets the girl that makes everything stop. It’s instant love – as bright and magical as a great pop song. There’s typical Cameron Crowe dialogue about life being a mix of the sweet and the sour. This time though, the film plays out this mix in a heightened state, with more focus upon the sour.

It only takes ten fast paced minutes for the first rug to be pulled from under the audience. The conversation that sounded like it could have been a therapy session is in fact taking place in a cell where Kurt Russell is interviewing Tom Cruise, who is now sporting a blank faced mask and is charged with murder.

It’s that mask which plays a big role in setting the tone for the movie as a whole. After the 40 minute mark, it plays a prominent role. Forty minutes into the movie a Nancy Wilson penned track that was performed by Cameron Diaz, and credited to her character Julie Gianni, plays. The track was titled I Fall Apart, and from this moment the film comes off the conventional tracks and explodes into another direction, just as the car that Diaz is driving with Cruise as a passenger veers off a bridge and straight into a wall. It’s a haunting static shot, at a distance which allows you time to wonder about the horrific aftermath of that accident.

David Aames survives, but is disfigured and hides behind the mask which we have seen in the flash forwards. During a scene that takes place in a club, its haunting quality is brought to the fore. He wanders the club, all expression removed, almost like a ghost. In fact the barman refuses to see him at first, looking away as he takes his order. I think this really works because of Tom Cruise’s involvement, audiences are so used to his face, his big smile, here that is all removed. Even when he removes the mask, that face is disfigured. These are the first steps for Vanilla Sky entering the territory of a horror film.

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The club scene is a precursor for the biggest rug pull of the entire film, which may not be perceptible on first viewing. After the club scene Sofia runs off, leaving David to collapse onto the sidewalk, defeated. There is another lyrical clue on the soundtrack as the R.E.M tune Sweetness Follows blasts out. As morning comes and David wakes up on the street, there are lots of subtle clues that something isn’t right.

A record scratch, the sound of the needle touching the vinyl, as we fade in from black. A burbling of strange sound, and an odd colour palette. The main clue is the sky, almost psychedelic. On subsequent viewings you realise this is the moment that David Aames chose to start his lucid dream. A product from a company that offer Life Extension, a program that lets you dream whilst being cryogenically frozen. From this moment on the film takes place inside David Aames head, and we’re drawn back into another of his nightmares.

Even knowing where this is heading on subsequent viewings, the second half of the film is quite a ride. Dialogue hints to what is occurring with characters saying things like “We created our own world together.” There are sex scenes edited in the style of the French New Wave with freeze frames and jump cuts, highlighting David’s love for those films seen on his posters. But when the mysteries start to evolve they become increasingly head scratching. Sofia and Julie change roles, you hear ones voice coming out of the other’s mouth, or one character starts impersonating the other one. The timelines start to cross over at this point as well, reaching peak head scratching, ‘what is going on’ levels.

This culminates in a murder scene that is a triumph of editing on all levels. Specifically sound editing – the mix here is phenomenal. Songs that have featured on the soundtrack fade in and out over glitches, radio noise from spy radio, specifically from the Conet project, numbers are read out in a way reminiscent of The Beatles’ Revolution Number 9. These numbers are actually David Aames’ patient number.

As the film reaches its climax it becomes difficult to discuss Vanilla Sky. The plot all clicks into place to the tune of Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys, which works as a great counterpoint to the moment, but also somehow makes one of the most upbeat of pop songs into something really sinister. What makes it difficult to discuss is that Vanilla Sky is constructed in such a way that it can mean multiple things to different people. Cameron Crowe even states on the audio commentary that there are four main interpretations of the films ending. One of these is fuelled by a tax disc which has a nonsensical date upon it – 30th February 2001 – which led people to read the film in its entirety as being David Aames’ dream.

Vanilla Sky can have very personal meanings to people. I loved how it uses our own personal relationship to pop culture to make up the scenes of our life, and the aspects that seep into our dreams and end up defining us. The iconography of your youth end up framing how you see the world, and most importantly for a Cameron Crowe film, how you fall in love. One of the big questions he mentions that he wanted the film to explore was “What is love in a world fuelled by pop culture?”

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Underneath the strangeness, this is still a romantic Cameron Crowe film, albeit one about someone who died over a hundred years ago and someone who is frozen. My favourite line in the film sums up a lot of my feelings towards it – whilst ascending in the lift to confront his final fear, David Aames says “The little things. There’s nothing bigger is there?” And in the final montage that defines David Aames’ life all those little things flash by – important album covers, home videos and more. It’s a sequence to go through frame by frame if you want to go deeper with the film and extract the maximum meaning from it, because it’s a film full of little things, clues and moments, and there’s nothing bigger.

Cameron Crowe, in summing up the film, alludes to the enormity of its focus, saying that he sees the film as “part folk song, part fable, part poem, and partly a committed late night conversation where big ideas flow freely”. Not many Hollywood films have this scale of ambition, combined with a very personal feeling to them. For that alone, Vanilla Sky should be applauded. But it’s got so much more going for it, and I hope you’ll want to follow all its little clues and dive deep into the film.