Culture

Vanilla Sky was ahead of its time

Like a Bob Dylan album put to screen, this movie impresses over 20 years later.

Neal Preston/Cruise-Wagner/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

Elvis once said, “I feel lonely, even in a crowded room.”

In 2001, writer-director Cameron Crowe was so inspired by the crooner’s musing over his rarified air that he let it set the tone of his remake of the 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes.

With an all-star cast led by Tom Cruise, Crowe unleashed a box office hit that was little loved by the many critics and contemporary audiences that saw it. But over 20 years later, there’s a lot to appreciate in this movie, as emotionally dark and cold as it might feel.

It isn’t the most ingenious or well-constructed sci-fi maze ever put to screen, nor does it even make total sense. But as a vehicle for Tom Cruise to turn on his charms (and then go dark), and a way for Cameron Crowe to trade his usually sharp dialogue for eroticism and painterly-like compositions, Vanilla Sky has stayed potent.

Vanilla Sky is streaming now on Amazon Prime. Here’s why you should watch it, and what you need to know before you do.

Released in an era when the most transgressive blockbusters were obsessed with questioning reality — The Matrix (1999), Fight Club (1999), Memento (2000), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Donnie Darko (2001) all preceded its December 2001 release — Vanilla Sky evoked the sensibilities of a maudlin Bob Dylan. Crowe’s film is what you see when wistful sentimentality locks arms with regret on a chilly autumn morning.

Cruise is David Aames, a Manhattan playboy and magazine magnate blessed with good looks and better charms. But while David lives The Life™, the movie punctuates the plot with a more ominous David in the future — behind a mask, seemingly disfigured — recalling his memories and emotions to a court psychologist (Kurt Russell).

Through his best friend (Jason Lee), David meets the beautiful Sofia (Penélope Cruz, reprising her role from Open Your Eyes). His life unravels when his budding romance with Sofia incurs the jealousy of his casual lover, Julie (Cameron Diaz).

Tom Cruise stars as David Aames, a New York magazine magnate and playboy who falls in love with a dancer, Sofia (Penélope Cruz), turning his life upside down.Neal Preston/Cruise-Wagner/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

With buzzers like “The saddest girl to ever hold a martini” and “without the bitter, baby, the sweet ain’t as sweet,” Vanilla Sky is more clever than smart. It’s a puzzle that doesn’t ask to be solved, but interpreted, like a painting. While Crowe has done a rare thing for a director and pointed out via DVD commentaries and articles exactly what’s real, what’s a dream, and where the lines blur, Vanilla Sky is far more fun when you decide where the boundaries are.

As a story, Vanilla Sky is driven by our collective obsession with youth, vanity, and the increasingly dwindling time we have to enjoy them. Sadly, it doesn’t have much to say about them beyond pointing them out, leaving the movie indecisive about making a point.

Vanilla Sky’s women lack dimension, leaving only Tom Cruise’s David with any real depth.Neal Preston/Cruise-Wagner/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

As Roger Ebert pointed out in his three-star review, Vanilla Sky “tells the story of a man who has just about everything, thinks he can have it all, is given a means to have whatever he wants, and loses it because—well, maybe because he has a conscience. Or maybe not. Maybe just because life sucks. Or maybe he only thinks it does.” Crowe’s movie doesn’t make any real arguments about its themes other than that they apparently drive us forward. Maybe sometimes they drive us off a bridge.

Although hampered by stiff dialogue and opaque plotting, Vanilla Sky manages to impress over 20 years later with imagery that’s both gorgeous and haunting, and a story that somehow harnesses the unbearable pang in your stomach when the thing you’re yearning for most is what you’re farthest from. It isn’t the best work by anybody involved — Crowe’s made better movies, and Cruise has put on better performances — but together, they’ve made something miraculous here.

Vanilla Sky is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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