In 1997, a Spanish film by the name of Abre los ojos was released and was a big hit not only in Spain, but in America, too. It didn’t make a whole lot of money, but it was praised by critics and audiences alike. Director Cameron Crowe was one of its fans, and decided to remake it with an American cast and crew as Vanilla Sky, with the exception of Penélope Cruz, who got to play the same role that she had in the original. I suppose he was impressed by the performance, but also figured that a foreign actress to play the main love interest would make it more compelling.
We’ve transplanted the setting of Madrid to New York, and the leading role has been given to Tom Cruise. He plays a rich man named David, whose wealth was given to him after his parents died. His father was the owner of a big publishing company, so he inherited that company and all of the money his father had accrued. This is important, because it means that, apart from his good looks and charm, he has another way with which he can woo the ladies. This is something he does with great frequency, beginning the film having a casual relationship with a woman named Julie (Cameron Diaz).
At a birthday party, his best friend, Brian (Jason Lee), brings with him a woman named Sofia (Cruz). David, being the man that he is, instantly falls for Sofia. This is despite Brian telling him that she “might be the one.” What seems like it’s setting up to be a predictable film about a love triangle quickly becomes something much more, although to say more about the plot at this point would be ruining the surprise.
Much of the reason Vanilla Sky works is because it’s very original if you haven’t previously seen the Spanish film. If you have, that element might not be there, but you’ll instead be looking at the small differences in scenes, in plot, and in dialogue. They are there. Crowe’s film is longer and treats things differently from the original. Certain lines of dialogue are talked about later, and some reveals happen in different ways. They’re different films, but they’re both good. I recommend seeing both of them.
If you’re pressed and have to pick one, Vanilla Sky is the film I’d choose. It’s more accessible to the common audience for one; I know that a lot of viewers, particularly those in North America, don’t like subtitles. Past that, though, Vanilla Sky essentially explains what’s going on in the final moments, which has a revelatory conversation between David and a man whom I won’t mention here. Vanilla Sky also takes its time a bit more, and I think it does a better job of making itself completely clear.
That is not to say that it doesn’t give you a lot to think about. The plot is complex and there are a lot of big ideas that it brings up. It does pick a side on many of these points, although it leaves enough up to you to make your own conclusions. You can say the same thing about the plot, which can be interpreted in many different ways — at least five, by my count, although a couple of those are the same but with different cutoff points (that will make sense once you see the movie).
Not only is Vanilla Sky complex enough to hold your attention, it’s also really interesting, compelling, and well-made. Cameron Crowe typically makes good movies, and here he’s outdone himself. Every scene is important, not a frame misplaced, and it adds up to something that’s incredibly powerful. Sure, it might not have been first, and it’s not as original as a result, but it still feels very fresh — and like a different movie — because of the filmmakers behind it.
There’s also a really dark comedy lying underneath its proceedings. It’s not exactly the type of thing that’s funny to everyone, or even the first time you see it, but after a while you figure out that a lot of the film isn’t supposed to be taken as seriously as it is at the beginning. You see Diaz and Cruise’s freakouts throughout the film and while it’s not necessarily funny in the moment, looking back on it will make you laugh. The second time through, you know how it ends — or at least you think you do — so you see the humor instead of just looking at it as it happens.
Vanilla Sky also has quite the payoff, the point when the spoiled, entitled, narcissist grows and learns something — and then puts what he learns into action, making a life-altering decision in the process. The performance from Tom Cruise, balancing charisma, craziness and cockiness, molding a strange but interesting human in the process, as well as his chemistry with the naive Cruz and the devilish Diaz, is what allows for this to work. Cruise sometimes goes over-the-top, but it’s glorious whenever that happens.
Vanilla Sky is a fabulous movie, either standing on its own or a remake of the very good Spanish film. It provides a lot to think about, some very touching scenes — both as singular scenes and in the context of the entire film — and some oddly comedic moments, as long as you’re okay with some dark humor. It’s a film that presents you with many valid ways to look at it, some good-to-great performances from its cast, and a very solid payoff at the end. It’s complex, not confusing, and I absolutely adored it from start to finish.