Masks, Dreams, and Pop Culture: In Defense of Vanilla Sky

In Movies by Jorge FarahLeave a Comment

So much of how we perceive ourselves, and how we present ourselves to the world, is tied up in the social capital that we assign to the culture we consume. In art, we find aspects of ourselves projected back to us; we then go on to project those elements outwardly to our peers. We like a piece of art not just because we find pure enjoyment in it, but also because of what it says about us:  we are knowledgeable; we are cultured; we are thoughtful; we are woke. This is why people wear merch. This is why people share their Spotify Most-Played Artists on social media at the end of the year. It may very well be part of the reason you’re reading this article. 

The concept of a “guilty pleasure” also plays into this idea. We might enjoy a piece of art, but we have an issue with what we think this says about us, so we indulge in it far from the eyes of our peers. Along those same lines, appreciating a film that a lot of people regarded as a ridiculous failure, a hackneyed trifle, a vanity project by a self-centered millionaire, or a piece of cultural colonialism… it tends to raise some eyebrows within certain film crowds. That’s the spot I find myself in. The popular perception of this piece of work is so far removed from my own that my effort to boost this movie’s standing among the high-minded film intelligentsia will certainly come across as misguided to some. Nevertheless, I volunteer as tribute.

Vanilla Sky is Cameron Crowe’s remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 mystery film Abre Los Ojos. It stars Tom Cruise as David Aames, a narcissistic millionaire whose life of empty excess is thrown off-course by a tragic event, and who is then charged with murder. It was released in 2001 to mixed reviews, splitting critics down the middle; while some did place it in their year-end best films list, others found it to be a self-indulgent mess (Peter Bradshaw, for The Guardian, called it “an extraordinarily narcissistic high-concept vanity project for producer-star Tom Cruise”). It didn’t fare much better with audiences, with many feeling utterly bewildered by the film’s wild tonal changes and often disorienting mishmash of genres. To this day, the film is unfavorably compared to Amenábar’s Abre Los Ojos, a criticism at least partly based on the original’s “authenticity”. 

Vanilla Sky is better than Abre Los Ojos. There, I said it. In fact, the film’s ambition and whiplash-inducing tonal shifts are virtues, not shortcomings. It is a deeply emotional film, with a lot to say about passion, the hopelessly fleeting nature of human connection, and the power of pop culture iconography to shape the narrative of our lives. And let me reassure you, yes, it is perfectly normal to be creeped out by Tom Cruise’s perennially peppy disposition and assumed narcissism, but that in itself is not a knock against the movie. Ultimately, I’m here to stick my neck out and tell you that there’s much more to this oft-derided film than people give it credit for and that critical reassessment is well overdue. 

It’s hard to talk about Vanilla Sky, let alone extol its virtues, without entering spoiler territory. Many of the things that make this film great reveal themselves as the narrative progresses. As David Aames’s life begins to unravel into a hazy, feverish maze, he starts to question the loyalty of those around him; he questions the identity of those he loves; he questions his own life and decisions, and he questions the very nature of reality. As the film gradually untethers from the traditional trappings of late-90s erotic thrillers, so does David’s grip on his own life begin to loosen, which is when the film’s most compelling qualities jump to the forefront.

One thing that seemed to immediately bother critics and audiences alike is the film’s nature as a remake.

Far too often, the very concept of remaking a movie is seen as inherently blasphemous by purists, as if the history of film wasn’t filled to the brim with reimaginings of old stories, shining new light on previously unexplored corners of an existing object. That’s precisely what Vanilla Sky does; it takes everything that makes Abre Los Ojos compelling and elevates it. It takes themes that were only hinted at in the original and makes them part of the film’s thesis statement. It takes aesthetic choices from the original (Amenábar not being a slouch himself) and runs with them, exploring their emotional contours, the implications of each character’s choices, and homing in on the core of each moment in a much more tangible way. It’s a bolder movie, which gives it a more ample opportunity for its broad swings to be misses. There’s a concerted effort to bring elements to the forefront that seemed to be lying dormant in the original. 

Music is one of them. Like David Aames, Cameron Crowe is a music obsessive. He understands the importance of a soundtrack for the audience to get a sense of the inner workings of a character’s psyche. There are a number of musical references throughout the course of the film, and the movie’s most dazzling sequences are all accompanied by expressive, poignant musical backing. Utter heartbreak set to REM’s “Sweetness Follows”. Peaceful resignation set to Sigur Ros’s “Njosnavelin”. Quiet intimacy scored by Bob Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around”. The joyous burst of romantic giddiness set to Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”. Brilliantly, a feverish burst of nightmarish psychedelia set to the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations”. 

These song choices also provide an opportunity for thematic exploration through dramatic irony; not only does the music serve as an emotional anchor, but the lyrics also serve as a commentary on the characters and the events depicted on screen. Vanilla Sky has what might be my favorite soundtrack of any movie. 

This is more than an aesthetic decision — it is a thematic one as well. I started this essay by discussing the way we use art to see a mirror image of ourselves. This wasn’t merely a framing device through which I could justify my love for this movie. One of the film’s key themes is the power of the culture we consume — pop culture by way of mass media — to help shape the narrative of our lives. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are as real and significant to our lives as the people we share them with, and that’s the prism through which David Aames builds his own life and self.

Vanilla Sky is also an exploration of masks and intimacy. This is brought down to a very literal level, as Aames’s deformed face is covered by an unnerving plastic mask for much of the film. But it’s also about the masks we wear before society, living up to the roles that we are expected to perform. The lies we tell and believe about ourselves, and the damage that we do in the interest maintaining such delusions. It feels a bit gratuitous to point out the relevance of masks given our current climate. Besides,  multiple articles have already been written pointing out the seemingly prescient nature of the film. Be warned: spoilers abound.

Another element that elevates this film above the original is the cast, which is uniformly great. Tom Cruise is a lot of things, and “eminently watchable” is definitely one of them. He projects the right amount of smarm, effortless charm, and upper-class entitlement to a character that is, for the most part, very easy to hate. Cameron Diaz’s turn as the unhinged Julie Gianni is a career-best performance, and Penelope Cruz injects warmth and authentic humanity to a character that, with a less skilled actress, might have come across as yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The supporting cast is stellar: Jason Lee, Kurt Russell, Michael Shannon, Tilda Swinton, all contributing brilliantly to the complex maze that is this film.

To be clear, Vanilla Sky is far from a perfect film. Its loudest detractors may be missing (or impervious to) a lot of its charms and thematic depth, as well as overlooking the beating heart at the core of the film, but many of their criticisms hold true. For one, it’s a Cameron Crowe penned script; this means that the dialogue does have the tendency to veer into the platitudinal, trading in verisimilitude and nuance for colorful, instantly quotable witticisms. 

The third act, which ramps up to a gloriously disorienting whirlwind of frenzied confusion, resolves in a disappointingly staid denouement: one character simply explaining everything to another. And while its emotional beats still resonate (the very final sequence is heartbreakingly gorgeous), one wonders why Crowe didn’t find a more dramatically compelling way to convey all this information to the audience. Yes, it adheres to the original conclusion from Amenábar’s film, but up to this point, Crowe hadn’t been shy about veering off-template.

Even with its numerous problems, Vanilla Sky remains impressive in its resolute earnestness, its scope of vision, the unabashed maximalism of its aesthetic approach, and its willingness to plunge head-first into emotion. It is not a film that one could accuse of sticking to the tried-and-true or being tepid, or mediocre. Even if one were to categorize it as an overall failure, it is not a half-hearted exercise in Hollywood rebranding. I admire any movie that commits so completely to its emotional core; that throws caution to the wind and goes for it

The film landscape is littered with literal-minded, coldly cerebral films, impressive in a number of technical aspects. It is also littered with flashy, highly-stylized exercises in nihilism. When a film like Vanilla Sky comes along, matching its wild ambitions with a deeply affecting story and a thematic treatment that says something about our minds and about our hearts, it should be given its due.

I invite you to dust off that old DVD copy you got as a gift in the summer of 2002 — or find out where it’s streaming — and give the film another watch. Let yourself be pulled along by its absurd, psychedelic maximalism, and follow the thread where it takes you. You might find that you actually hate every minute of it and that all my ranting about its many virtues is nothing but hyperbolic, flowery nonsense. But I bet you’ll at least come away having felt something. And in an era of increasingly disposable entertainment, where the monoculture has all but gobbled up the idiosyncratic mid-budget Hollywood film and normalized a consistently lukewarm emotional response from its audience, that alone has worth. It is, if nothing else, a mess worth experiencing.

Or maybe just listen to the soundtrack. Trust me, it’s really good.

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