Vanilla Sky it was underestimated for a long time and only later managed to gain its deserved cult status. At the time, in fact, the media were more interested in her appearance Mr. & Mrs. Smith of the work than of the film itself, obscuring its value in order to be able to see it as the film in which Tom Cruise fell in love with Penelope Cruz and left Nicole Kidman. Plus, it’s an American remake of the Spanish Open your eyes, direct by Alejandro Amenabar. The comparison between the two films is therefore inevitable; yet in this way Cameron Crowe’s work is done wrong. In fact, despite being extremely faithful to the original, it is as if the director had reinterpreted Amenabar’s film, adding layers upon layers that made it something separate from the source material. Amenabar himself praised the differences, saying:
“Vanilla Sky is as faithful to the original spirit as it is irreverent towards its form, and this makes it a courageous and 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“.
It happens right away, before we get to the love story (which is Crowe’s most characteristic aspect in the film), in the iconic and significant opening scene of Vanilla Sky.
We see Manhattan, shot from top to bottom and on a large scale, so as to immediately highlight the protagonist David Aames’ fear of heights. We fly over the Dakota Building, a building believed to be cursed (so much so that Roman Polanski set it there Rosemary’s Baby) and which has hosted countless celebrities, including Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli and especially John Lennon; and it was right in front of that door that the latter was murdered. Meanwhile, we hear Paul McCartney’s song of the same title as the film and, if he is intentional (and knowing Crowe’s musical knowledge, it almost certainly is), it is truly brilliant. Once the titles have passed, we hear the first line, referring to the original work and pronounced by Cruz’s Sofia and which transforms into the voice of Cameron Diaz’s Julianna: “Open your eyes”. Meanwhile, it resonates Everything in Its Right Place by Radiohead, underline the normality of the moment. Except there’s nothing normal about it. Because Times Square is empty, deserted, devoid of people. A metaphor that could represent David’s drowning in the modern world or his fear of loneliness; in any case, we have an iconic, memorable intro in front of us and to be studied in any film school.
And this first scene already reveals the quotative and meaning-laden layer of Crowe’s film.
Identifying the character of Sofia is Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn, film screened at David’s house. The love story between the two is represented in Nouvelle Vague style, much loved by the protagonist as can be seen from the posters of Jules and Jim e Until my last breath hanging in his apartment. Furthermore, the episode of The Twilight Zone entitled The Theater of Shadows is fundamental, visible in Crowe’s work: it tells of a man convicted of murder, convinced however that his world is, in reality, a nightmare and, in vain, he tries to make those who are executing him understand; first clue of the direction in which he will go Vanilla Sky. Let’s not forget, however, Steven Spielberg’s cameo, the spot-on soundtrack and Monet’s painting The Seine at Argenteuil. Indeed, it is from the latter that Vanilla Sky derives, which translates as “vanilla-colored sky”indicating the fictitious reality of the film, where the sky is no longer blue but of another color.
After all, David’s life is too perfect to be true. He has money, charm, the right friends (as REM sing in the background) and Cruise was born to play mainly two roles: the superman Mission Impossible and charming daddy’s boy, as in Vanilla Sky. It will be at his birthday party that he meets the woman who makes everything stop, that Sofia with whom he falls in love instantly, magically, as if she were the protagonist of a song. After a typical Crowe-like dialogue on the sweetness and bitterness of life, the first certainty is taken away from us. The conversation, which seemed like a session with a psychologist, turns into an interrogation carried out by the emblematic doctor Curtis McCabe, played by an excellent Kurt Russell. This friendly sidekick, wise therapist and trusted father figure will turn out to be, shockingly, a computer-generated artificial intelligence based on the dreams and desires of David who, at that moment, while talking to McCabe, finds himself in prison, accused of murder and has a white mask covering his face.
And it is through David’s story to the psychiatrist that we enter his mind, understanding what lies inside and shifting the axis of the film towards the psychological thriller. And not only.
In the same way as Julianna drives the car off the road in a static, disturbing and almost slow-motion scene, the film also strays from the chosen route. AND that mask is the symbol of this. David hides his frailties behind it, both physical and psychological, and turns him into a ghost ignored by the world. And, if we think about how we usually see Cruise’s smiling and perfect face, it is an astonishing result and shows the potential of a film that humanizes the most granitic of actors. Vanilla Sky, here, touches on horror, anticipating the twist perhaps not perceptible at first viewing: David collapses on the sidewalk and, when he wakes up, there is something wrong, like the sounds, the colors and that psychedelic sky. Only later do we understand that it is from this moment that his lucid dream begins, that is, a program that allows you to dream despite being cryogenically frozen. And it is now that Vanilla Sky it sucks us into its protagonist’s nightmares.
The estrangement only increases, through the subtly revealing dialogues, the sex scenes full of sharp cuts and freeze-frames, the overlapping timelines and Sofia and Julianna who exchange each other. Cruz’s sweet face switches with Diaz’s sinister face, representing the two faces of love, both illusory and present in David. Little by little we reach the climax, in which the plot masterfully adapts to the soundtrack and the truth about the reality in which David lives is revealed, thus veering towards science fiction. Maybe today’s technological advances make it less effective, but the ambiguity and questions that something like Life Extension generates in us remains: Is a life with regrets but true or an existence forged on our dreams and desires but imaginary better? Not even the end of Vanilla Sky definitively dissolves the doubt, with that last touching exchange between Sofia and David, in which he remembers one of her phrases, namely “Every minute that passes is an opportunity to completely revolutionize everything”. Thus, he stops fossilizing on that one evening and, by throwing himself from the roof, chooses a real existence, even if what he finds will no longer be his world. And who knows, sooner or later their happy ending will come, perhaps as cats, as she liked to tell him jokingly.
Vanilla Sky it’s complex, you can’t waste a minute of it. And its difficulty also comes from how it is built, so that it can transmit different meanings to people who, by looking at it, can give it their interpretation. Crowe himself stated that, in truth, there are 5 in the finale: Technical support tells the truth about David and lucid dreaming; the whole story is a dream and the date on the sticker on David’s car proves it (there is no such thing as February 30); David is in a coma after the accident and dreams; it’s the entire plot of David’s best friend Brian’s book; what happens after the accident is the result of the hallucination of the sedatives that David takes for the facial surgery.
Whatever interpretation can be given to it, Vanilla Sky reminds us that we are the sum of our choices and the result of lived experiences. Ranging freely between genres, getting lost between dreams, reality and daydreams, he reveals to us that our existence is made up of small things and, as David says in the finale, “The little things… Nothing is bigger, right?”. It talks to us about the danger of our unconscious (which often denies that we are the problem and not some external conspiracy), about dreams, about our fears especially in reference to death, but also about those that hold us back from achieving true happiness. It makes us reflect on the concreteness of our world and the way pop culture influences us, ends up defining our identity and becomes the filter of how we see reality and love. Crowe considers it a film:
“part pop song, part fable, part poem, and part engaged late-night conversation where big ideas flow freely.”