Vanilla Sky: Cameron Crowe’s Overblown Remake of Amenabar Spanish Thriller, Starring Tom Cruise

Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky provides a case study of what happens when a mainstream studio, Paramount, and a major Hollywood star, Tom Cruise, take a Spanish thriller, Open Your Eyes, and turn it into a spectacularly glossy, big-budget, effects-ridden star vehicle that’s overwhelming artistically but underwhelming in any other way.

Using the arthouse hit of Alejandro Amenabar (who recently made a splash with The Others), writer-director Crowe has turned the 1997 metaphysical suspenser into an overblown production, a mishmash of a movie that’s part sci-fi, part supernatural drama, part sexual thriller a la Fatal Attraction, part erotic romance–and not really satisfying on any level.

Paramount’s marketing campaign uses the tag line LoveHateDreamsLifeWorkPlayFriendshipSex, which pretty much sums up the hodgepodge nature of their product. The beautiful Penelope Cruz (who played the same part in the original film) and Cameron Diaz should help Cruise position the film at home and abroad as a major league player, guaranteeing a strong opening weekend. However, Vanilla Sky may be the one Cruise movie to test the boundaries of his stardom and box-office power–it’s doubtful that it will score as high as the 1996 feel-good sports comedy, Jerry Maguire, Cruise’s previous effort with Crowe.

Retitled Vanilla Sky, Crowe’s remake forfeits the ironic bite of the Spanish film’s title, Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos), which signaled two different yet interrelated meanings: the physical act of waking up and looking, and the metaphysical one of being alert and watchful of what goes around. Crowe doesn’t dismiss the idea completely, and throughout the film, a sexy female voice tells the hero, “open his eyes.”

In the film’s visually stunning opening (orchestrated by ace lenser John Toll), David Aames (Cruise) wakes up, looks at himself in the mirror, plucks a few gray hairs from his bushy mane, and jumps into his sports car. Speeding down on Broadway, he suddenly stops at an empty Times Square and begins to run hysterically between 48th and 42nd street. Nothing that follows this breathtaking scene, in which the camera follows David all alone in the world, matches it in imagery or impact.

Snowboarding through life, the handsome and wealthy David, a successful publishing exec, leads a charmed, freewheeling existence, yet something crucial is missing from it. Accustomed to one-night stands, David has casual sex with Julie (Cameron Diaz), a satisfying act for him but one that fails to acknowledge her needs. At his birthday party, he flirts with a mysterious stranger, Sofia (Penelope Cruz), who’s the girlfriend of his buddy, Brian (Jason Lee), a writer who’s financially supported by David.

Their flirtation is observed with alarm by the jealous Julie and insecure yet still loyal Brian. The next morning, David accepts a lift from Julie, who begins tormenting him in a manner that recalls Glenn Close’s turbulent character in Fatal Attraction. Their ride turns out to be fatal, when Julie crashes the car across a bridge, seemingly committing suicide. The traumatic experience turns David into a bitter man, leaving his face horribly disfigured. Rushing from one plastic surgeon to another, David appears to be beyond cosmetic repair.

Drunk and disillusioned with what he perceives as Sofia’s betrayal and her favoring again Brian, David collapses on the street. Waking up the next day, he realizes that the entire world around him has changed: Among other things, Julie returns to his life, now claiming she’s Sofia.

Accused of committing a murder he doesn’t remember, David tells in flashbacks his twists-and-turns yarn to a sympathetic psychiatrist, McCabe (Kurt Russell). Indeed, changing gears, and relying on David’s selective memory, a convoluted yarn then recounts his fateful encounter with a company called Life Extension. Under strict supervision from his prison’s ward, David returns to the company’s offices, where he finally unravels their scary futuristic specialty, Cryogenics.

About half of the movie is set in a bleak prison, with David wearing a prosthetic mask, which he adamantly refuses to remove. However, an opportunity to explore a kind of “Beauty and the Beast” relationship, via his affair with Sofia, is sadly missed. And unfortunately, Vanilla Sky gets more baffling as it goes along, and it doesn’t know how and when to end.

Possessing a wonderful command of film language, Amenabar is highly adept at creating a atmosphere of fear, tension, and unease, most recently evident in The Others. In contrast, Crowe is a generous director, usually attracted to uniquely American sunny and optimistic material (Say Anything, Jerry MaGuire, Almost Famous). Ultimately, Crowe might be the wrong director for rendering dark, disturbing tones onscreen.

Cinephiles are urged to examine Amenabar’s film, which was set in an abstract, modern Metropolis. His Open Your Eyes paid homage to Hitchcock, specifically Vertigo, a masterpiece of surreal cinema that dealt with the inseparability of reality and illusion, the obsession with physical looks, the need to shape and control another person’s identity in the name of love. Moreover, the Spanish film displayed an indelibly haunting imagery, such as Madrid’s traffic-jammed streets suddenly emptied of cars, or a crowded and noisy disco shockingly turned silent.

With the exception of the splendid Times Square prologue, no sequence in Crowe’s film matches in power the Spanish film’s imagery and mood. Narratively and visually, Crowe treats the text as if he were doing the equivalent of a colorful cover to an expensive music album. Indeed, music has always been an integral part of Crowe’s strategy, here using an impressively eclectic array of disco music and edgier fare, such as techno beats.

Overall, Vanilla Sky works most effectively as a pop culture ride, which is one of the film’s themes, particularly how culture affects us as a standard of evaluation of self and others. Under these circumstances, the best way to endure the film is to marvel at the production design, which doesn’t always serve well the narrative, but is rich and busy enough to keeps the eyes open.

Hence David’s office was shot at the Conde Nast Building, where the high-profile Vanity Fair, itself a pop culture icon, is housed. And his Upper West Side penthouse is a sprawling, impeccably appointed space, dominated by muted blues and dark wood. Since artwork is a key in conveying David’s flair and exquisite taste, his residence is decorated with Balthus, Rothko, Matisse, and cool contemporary artists. Crowe even pays homage to his own rock & roll past in the presence of several guitars, including a smashed one (lovingly framed behind glass) and a skateboard emblazoned with the image of David Bowie.

Meant to be a cautionary morality tale, Vanilla Sky unfolds as an emotional journey in which a young, self-absorbed womanizer looks deep into his soul and finds new meaning of love and sex. However, pushing 40, Cruise is too old to play a careless and heartless yuppie; in Amenabar’s film, the protagonist was 25! As an actor, Cruise is proficient, but, like the other thesps, his turn suffers from a film that’s plot rather than character-driven.

Indeed, the two women in David’s life represent types, and not just in their physicality. Optimistic and guileless, the brunette Sofia exudes a warm, down-to-earth life force and healthy sexuality that cuts through David’s rarefied world of sycophants and opportunists. In contrast, the blonde Julie is a quintessentially New York single woman, demanding, neurotic, and deranged.

One of Vanilla Sky’s biggest problems is Cruise’s lack of chemistry with either of his glamorous co-stars: Diaz and Cruz (which is peculiar, considering their well-publicized off-screen affair). With few exceptions, this has been a recurrent obstacle in Cruise’s films, from Top Gun (with Kelly McGillis), all the way to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, in which he failed to generate onscreen steam or rapport with his then wife, Nicole Kidman.

This is the third consecutive American film, following All the Pretty Horses and Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, in which Cruz is disappointing, a possible result of her lack of command of English; many distinguished foreign actresses before her have suffered from this quandary. Diaz looks sexy, but her role is too narrowly conceived as a vulnerable and disconnected woman desperate to find her white knight. Lee and Russell have some good moments, but they too fall victims to a movie that’s weak on characterization.