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Reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of Vanilla Sky

Cameron Crowe’s Film First Came Out December 10, 2001

Dec 24, 2021 By Austin Saalman
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Adapted from the 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes, director Cameron Crowe’s sweeping 2001 psychosexual science fiction thriller is a tender exploration of the complex mystery that is human desire and the inevitability of its consequences. Crowe’s second outing with leading man Tom Cruise found the duo surpassing the likes of Jerry Maguire, delivering a tour de force that is intriguing, intelligent, and often touching. A creative landmark for the actor, Vanilla Sky is part of a select host of vastly underrated, yet more interesting roles taken by Cruise in a number of underappreciated cinematic masterpieces, including Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia. It is within this range that Cruise’s major achievements as an actor were made, and director Crowe served as a perfect guide for this particular performance.

At the center of Vanilla Sky is wealthy 33-year-old Manhattan playboy David Aames, who inhabits an elite world ornamented with an abundance of popular culture memorabilia. From a life-sized hologram of John Coltrane to an original Joni Mitchell painting to Pete Townshend’s smashed guitar framed upon his wall, he appears to have it all, using those he allows into his life to subconsciously manifest the most meaningful cultural images of his youth.

Enter Sofia Serrano (a show-stealing performance by Penélope Cruz, reprising her role from the original film), David’s sincere, salt of the earth antithesis. She lacks the pretensions of David’s peers and does not hesitate to speak her mind, often poking fun at and occasionally criticizing his personality and lifestyle. This is something he much appreciates, falling instantly in love and spending with her one fateful, semi-platonic night “when true love was possible.”

What transpires afterward is a web of suspicion, deceit, longing, passion, discovery, and dreams. David’s life of luxury is frequently intercut with scenes from a dingy prison, the incarcerated protagonist now sporting an uncanny prosthetic mask—his face having been scarred to the point of unrecognizability after an attempted vehicular murder-suicide by a spurned lover (a devastatingly brilliant Cameron Diaz). All the while, fatherly psychologist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell) walks the amnesiac inmate through a blur of memories of peculiar events that eventually resulted in Sofia’s alleged murder at David’s hands.

David, it is eventually revealed, has spent half of the film cryogenically frozen for 200 years, and is now trapped within an expensively curated lucid dream-turned-nightmare. The Sofia of the film’s latter portion has merely been David’s ideal of her, as in reality, they were relative strangers. The emotion is raw as David makes his ultimate decision, aided by Noah Taylor as “tech support,” to depart his dreamscape in favor of a “real life.” This, of course, culminates in the famous “skyscraper scene,” in which David realizes that he must face his lifelong fear of heights, leaping from the rooftop and falling a great distance, only to awaken in what is presumably reality.

Beneath this stylish veneer, Vanilla Sky is ultimately a morality tale of living, loving, and dying in the 21st Century, where even the inevitable can be bought and sold—Russell summing it up by exclaiming, “Mortality as home entertainment? This cannot be the future!” The concept’s relevance is, of no surprise to anybody with access to the outside world, far less science fiction and more akin to reality than it was 20 years ago, making the film worth watching as an increasingly necessary piece of disconcerting cultural and technological commentary.

Despite its legions of detractors, Vanilla Sky may indeed be Crowe’s greatest film, but, more importantly, it is a rich smorgasbord for cinephiles and music aficionados alike. The spectacular Music from Vanilla Sky features a diverse range of artists, from Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, and The Monkees to Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, R.E.M., Red House Painters—Mark Kozelek has a brief cameo as the night club bathroom bully, telling the disfigured David to “fix [his] fucking face”—Sigur Rós, Josh Rouse, and Crowe’s then-wife Nancy Wilson, who scored the film. Each song accentuates its respective scene, Crowe being an expert at compiling tunes for his works.

Artists not featured on the subsequent soundtrack, such as Spiritualized, Creeper Lagoon, and The Beach Boys—in cinema’s second greatest use of “Good Vibrations,” eclipsed only by that of Jordan Peele’s own misunderstood creative triumph Us—figure just as effectively into the narrative. Throughout David’s lucid dream, he and Sofia inhabit the various films and albums of which he is fond—most beautifully, the duo’s unconscious reenactment of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s jacket cover. During the final “fall” sequence, various images flash before David’s eyes, including the artwork of Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, Bruce Springsteen’s The River, and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, as well as a live performance by The Who.

Although greeted with mixed reviews, Vanilla Sky has acquired something of a cult following in the 20 years since its release. Despite once-clever lines such as, “I’ll see you in another life, when we are both cats” and “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around” having since lost a bit of their depth, the movie continues to hold up. While arguably undeserving of much of the criticism it receives, Vanilla Sky is, for a large budget mainstream film, “weird” in so many respects—but therein rests its beauty.

The power of memory and fragility of time as we experience it is no light topic to survey, but certainly Crowe and Cruise’s collaborative masterwork comes close.

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