The Horror Honeys: OPEN YOUR EYES… AGAIN


A Sci-Fi Honey Revisionist Review by Katie

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Cameron Crowe was a phenomenal writer, a visionary director, and an incomparable maestro of the perfect mixtape… but only between 1989 and 2000, when he released his first (Say Anything) and last (Almost Famous) masterpiece. Since then, his creative output has run the gamut from painfully saccharine schmaltz (Elizabethtown) to yawn-inducing mediocrity (We Bought a Zoo) to the latest critically panned abomination, which I don’t care to witness (Aloha). So, what started this innovative young filmmaker on a downward trajectory toward committing sin after celluloid sin? Perhaps it’s the film I attempted to walk out on in theaters near the end of 2001, when my friends grabbed me by the arm and begged me to stay. “You HAVE to see the end,” they whispered. “It’ll blow your mind.” 

I stayed. My mind was indeed blown, but only by the flames of inexorable rage. I have not seen Vanilla Sky since that fateful day, but I revisited it this week in the hopes that youth and cinematic naiveté skewed my first impression 14 years ago. Perhaps as an adult I can appreciate more of the film’s layered homages to popular music and cinema, its offbeat structure, provocative ideologies, and intrepid performances.

Or perhaps I would still hate it.

Some of you may be scratching your heads trying to remember whether this is or is not actually a sci-fi movie, so let me reassure you: it is. While the film was (misleadingly) marketed as some kind of psychological thriller, or even a romantic drama, the crux of the film boils down to one outlandish plot development which places it squarely in the realm of science fiction. Tom Cruise stars as David Aames, a publishing mogul who is trying to reconcile how two beautiful women fit into his playboy lifestyle: psychotically lovesick vixen Julie (Cameron Diaz) and coquettish Spanish dancer Sofia (Penelope Cruz). Julie attempts a vehicular murder/suicide by driving off a bridge with Aames in the passenger seat, but manages to only kill herself. Aames is left horribly maimed and disfigured by the accident, concealing his hideous visage behind an Eyes Without a Face-esque mask. The rest of the film oscillates between parallel timelines, one of which may be a flashback: did Aames get his face fixed and live happily ever after with Sofia under a halcyon vanilla sky? Or is he on trial for her murder, mistaking her identity for Julie’s?

If you don't like spoilers, run away now!

If the revelation at the climax of Vanilla Sky is to be taken at face value, neither of these two plotlines are “real” – as it turns out, Aames killed himself when he couldn’t cure his ugliness, but he also paid a company called Life Extension to keep his brain animated in an everlasting lucid dream. It’s 150 years after the inciting incident, and Aames’s subconscious has warped his beautiful dream into a nightmare. It turns out that Sofia is literally Aames’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl; none of the happy memories he had with her actually happened, and a majority of the film is just a fantasy constructed by his cryogenically frozen brain. That, or if you give credence to some of the online fan theories, everything after the car accident happens while he’s in a coma. Or it’s all a book that Jason Lee’s character was writing. Or the whole freaking movie was a dream, from the very first shot – which means the audience sat through 136 minutes of Tom Cruise for nothing.

...which is the worst nightmare of all.

By now you should be able to guess one of my primary issues with Vanilla Sky: it is a film that suffers from a serious crisis of identity. Based on the Spanish-language film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) by Alejandro Amenábar, Crowe adapted a flawed but compelling surrealist thriller into a muddled amalgam of various genres, ideas, and convoluted philosophies. Unlike worthier films that explore the enigma of the unconscious, such as Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, every new layer of Aames’s perceived reality only serves to cloud the inner life of his character and the purpose of telling his story. I used to think that I didn’t like the film because I just didn’t ‘get’ it; now I feel a though the whole experience is just a meandering mindtrip with no destination. There’s nothing worse than a film that tries to confuse audiences into thinking they’ve experienced something transcendent. Vanilla Sky is one of the worst examples of incoherence masquerading as intelligence.

Also: remember when Cruise/Cruz was a thing?

So after all these years, did I like anything about it? Of course. This is a Cameron Crowe movie, after all, so Vanilla Sky does have one thing going for it: an amazing soundtrack. The opening nightmare sequence – beginning with a shot of the Dakota building from Rosemary’s Baby and scored to Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” – is one of the best standalone scenes in the filmmaker's entire repertoire. Crowe’s impeccable taste in music, however, often fits in naturalistically with the organic environment of his films; the music in Vanilla Sky, on the other hand, comes off as artifice – a gimmick for the sake of being ‘cool’ rather than contributing to the emotional undercurrent of a given scene. Crowe uses Vanilla Sky’s musical catalogue the way that someone like Cruise’s character might show off an obscure record collection that he never actually listens to. By the time you watch a deformed David Aames having a mental breakdown to The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” you’ll be facepalming yourself into oblivion.

Pictured: me, after sitting through this movie again.

As the film zigzags towards Aames’s ultimately hollow redemption, opportunities for cinematic greatness are criminally squandered. Until I watched it this week, I’d forgotten that some incredible actors – most notably Tilda Swinton and Michael Shannon – are left to languish in thankless roles. Before he was relegated to the fringe of Hollywood as a couch-jumping Xenu worshipper, Cruise’s performance as David Aames is the kind of egocentric exploit we’ve now come to expect – eliciting far more snickers than sympathy. I’m glad I gave this movie another shot, but I stand by my initial assessment: like Aames, the appeal of Vanilla Sky is only skin-deep. 

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: One Radiohead-scored lucid dream out of five.

Have you seen Vanilla Sky? Did you 'get it' - tell me all about your lucid dream on Twitter!