Vanilla Sky

Director: Cameron Crowe
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe (based on a screenplay Abre los ojos by Alejandro Amenabar and Mateo Gil Rodriguez)
Stars: Tom Cruise (David Aames), Penelope Cruz (Sofia Serrano), Kurt Russell (Dr. Curtis McCabe), Cameron Diaz (Julie Gianni), Jason Lee (Brian Shelby), Johnny Galecki (Peter Brow), Noah Taylor (Edmund Ventura)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2001
Country: U.S.
Vanilla Sky Paramount Presents Blu-ray
Vanilla Sky

Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe’s faithful Hollywood remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s 1997 Spanish film Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), is many things all at once. It is a romantic melodrama, a murder mystery, an existential thriller, and a perplexing dream-logic puzzlebox, not to mention a barely disguised cinematic meditation on the larger-than-life perfection of Tom Cruise’s visage. At times, you might think you wandered into a David Lynch film, except that everything is explained—almost too neatly and tidily—at the end. Crowe wants to confuse and confound you, but he doesn’t want you leave with those feelings. Rather, Vanilla Sky is an orderly morality tale, and Crowe is making a point about the shallowness of hedonism and the pains of missing real opportunities in life.

Like Crowe’s others films, Vanilla Sky is first and foremost a romance, and Crowe’s unabashed humanism shines through the veneer of the calculated thriller just as surely as it shined through the ’70s rock’n’roll excess of his previous film, Almost Famous (2000). Tom Cruise, reteaming with Crowe after their extremely successful pairing in Jerry Maguire (1996), plays David Aames, a shallow, narcissistic young New Yorker who inherited the keys to a controlling 51% of his father’s publishing empire without working a day in his life. He flaunts his wealth with conspicuous consumption and reckless abandon, filling his chic Manhattan apartment with expensive gadgets and cruising the streets in a shiny classic Mustang. He is a man who truly relishes getting up in the morning simply because he can look at himself in the mirror.

David throws enormous parties that attract the like of Steven Spielberg (who can be quickly glimpsed in a cameo) and the entire Olympic snow-boarding team. But, at the same time, he is down-to-earth enough to have a best friend like Brian Shelby (Jason Lee), an aspiring novelist who watches David’s antics with a kind of detached bemusement, giving him lectures from time to time about the need to endure the bitter in order to fully enjoy the sweet, a lesson that is—at first, anyway—entirely lost on David.

At his self-thrown birthday party, David meets the lovely Sophia (Penelope Cruz, recreating the role she played in Abre los ojos), a no-nonsense dancer (“the last semi-guileless woman in New York City,” as David describes her) with whom he immediately and absolutely falls in love. They spend the night together at her apartment—no sex involved, just talking and cuddling—and when David emerges in the morning light, we get the sense that something has changed about him. For once, he wants to be a better man.

But, then he makes a decision. He gets in a car with Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), a model/actress with whom David has an ongoing sexual relationship that is more casual to him than it is to her. In fact, Julie is so in love with David and so distraught that he only returns her affections through casual sex that she becomes suicidal and drives the car off a bridge and into a brick wall. She is killed, and David’s face is seriously disfigured.

Being a narcissist who is more than aware of his own good looks, having his face disfigured is a major blow to David’s sense of self-worth. But, more than that, we sense that the accident is fatally damaging on a deeper level because it came at the very moment in which David felt love for the first time and was on his way to changing his life for the better. The violence done to his body is a physical embodiment of the emotional violence fate played on him, ruining his genuine romance with Sophia and driving him even more into himself. (It is at this point that the more cynical in the audience can fully read into the film Cruise’s own self-infatuation, particularly the scene in which he tells Sophia that he cannot smile, thus self-consciously robbing David/Cruise of his most marketable asset.)

From the very start, Vanilla Sky hints at future problems of a graver sort. The first scene shows us an uncanny, disturbing dream in which David finds himself completely alone in the middle of New York City. We also see from the beginning that the film is told in flashback, with David in custody for an unknown crime, his face covered by a latex mask as he tells his story to a sympathetic police psychologist (Kurt Russell).

The story he tells becomes increasingly strange, and, in its last third, Vanilla Sky begins to drift into surrealistic dream logic, once again suggesting that, whenever things start going right for David, there is some force out there to intervene. Despite his disfigurement, he and Sophia renew their temporarily interrupted relationship, and a radical advance in plastic surgery restores his face. But, his life begins to come apart at the seams in ways that are completely unexpected, as his past and his present merge, Sophia becomes Julie, his face is disfigured again, and then it’s not, he is accused of murder, but he doesn’t know of whom. Rest assured, it all has an explanation, which is delivered in detail by a convenient plot device played by Noah Taylor.

Vanilla Sky has a lot going for it, and at times it seems to be working beautifully. It draws you in, and Crowe’s experience with romantic dramas shows in the natural ease with which Cruise and Cruz develop a plausible true-love entanglement in only one night (after so many false starts, this was the first time that Cruz was allowed to really shine in a Hollywood movie). Yet, at the same time, Crowe turns out to be the film’s biggest liability, as he proves to be ill-equipped to handle the subtle and not-so-subtle tonal shifts of a mind-bending romantic thriller. There are time when you sense that he is in way over his head, and all the hectic 360-degree camera movements and rapid-fire editing feels like a visualization of Crowe’s own anxiety, rather than David’s.

Most jarring is Crowe’s absolutely inappropriate use of music, which consistently sabotages his visuals. Crowe was well-known for being on the cutting edge of popular music, having been a reporter for Rolling Stone when he was a teenager and having made Say Anything … (1989), which features what is without doubt the greatest scene involving a love-struck teenager serenading the object of his affection with a boom box playing Peter Gabriel; Singles (1992), which helped launch the Seattle grunge sound of the early ’90s; and Almost Famous, which many consider to be one of the greatest films ever made about rock’n’roll. He needed to let go of all that for Vanilla Sky, yet he drags it along with him and inflicts it on the movie. Just when Crowe jacks up the intensity or draws you into the story, he undercuts his efforts by pounding us with songs by R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, or (worst of all) The Beach Boys. Some of his musical decisions are simply inexplicable, not because they’re bad songs, but because they draw attention to themselves in ways that detract from the story. It’s an unfortunate instance in which the sensibilities of Crowe the music aficionado overwhelm the sensibilities of Crowe the director to the detriment of the film.

Still, the morality aspect of Vanilla Sky works its way through the twists and turns of the narrative, and we are left with the story of a man who must ultimately make a choice between dreams and reality. The explanation for everything that happens in the film may strike some as contrived, but I found it fascinating, even if I wished it had been revealed more carefully, rather than being unambiguously explained in lecture format. Of course, there is little if anything that is ambiguous about Vanilla Sky —it’s a film that wants to perplex you, only to comfort you that much more in the end. Ultimately, it is exactly the kind of surreal, romantic thriller you would expect from the director of Jerry Maguire.

Vanilla Sky “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • German Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, German
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Cameron Crowe and composer Nancy Wilson
  • “ Filmmaker Focus: Cameron Crowe on Vanilla Sky” featurette
  • Alternate ending with optional commentary by Crowe
  • “Prelude to a Dream” featurette
  • “Hitting it Hard” featurette
  • Interview with Paul McCartney
  • Gag reel
  • Leftfield/Afrika Bambaataa “Afrika Shox” music video
  • Photo gallery with audio introduction by photographer Neal Preston
  • Mask Test with optional commentary by Crowe
  • Kurt Russell Single Take with optional commentary by Crowe
  • Unreleased teaser trailer and international trailer
  • Deleted scenes with optional commentary by Crowe
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateNovember 16, 2021

    Paramount previously released Vanilla Sky on Blu-ray back in 2015, and while I haven’t seen that disc and therefore can’t comment on its quality, I can’t imagine that it looked better than what is included on this new “Paramount Presents” edition. Newly transferred in 4K, the 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation here is simply gorgeous, with a smooth and well-detailed presentation that nevertheless maintains a perfectly balanced filmlike appearance. John Toll’s cinematography is purposefully mundane and realistic for much of the film, so colors are generally muted until the end, when the vanilla sky of the title makes its dazzling appearance. The scenes between Cruise and Russell are effectively dark without being muddy, with great shadow detail and black levels. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack is also great, with excellent separation and a strong front soundstage. The surround channels are quite active at times, creating an enveloping environment, whether it be at David’s crowded birthday party or the dank environments of the police interrogation room (which feels like a basement).

    The only new supplement included here is the “Filmmaker Focus” featurette, which is a by-now familiar element of the “Paramount Presents” line. Here we get writer/director Cameron Crowe reminiscing about the film, its origins, and its production for roughly eight minutes. The disc also includes all the supplements that appeared on the 2015 Blu-ray, a number of which originally came from the 2002 DVD. From the Blu-ray we have a fascinating alternate ending, which was reconstructed from various less-than-stellar-looking work prints. It runs a solid half-hour and adds a number of scenes to the theatrical ending, giving more screen time to Kurt Russell, Michael Shannon, and Noah Taylor, which apparently confused test audiences too much, which is why Crowe went back and cut the ending down to make it more efficient and explanatory. There are also 35 minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Crowe, most of which are alternate versions or extensions of scenes from the theatrical version (including three that are part of the alternate ending), although a few are completely new. There are also two featurettes from the original Blu-ray, both of which have optional commentary by Crowe: “Mask Test,” which is video of one of the possible masks for David, and “Kurt Russell Single Take,” which shows us Russell performing a lengthy monologue from the end of the film against a green screen. From the 2002 DVD, we start with an audio commentary by director Cameron Crowe and composer Nancy Wilson, which is, for all intents and purposes, a Cameron Crowe solo commentary. Wilson (who is also Crowe’s wife) is in the room and offers a few words here and there (as well as strums some chords on her guitar now and then). And, at one point in the commentary, Crowe actually calls Tom Cruise on the phone, who offers his thoughts for a few minutes. But, otherwise, it’s all Crowe. As Vanilla Sky is a puzzlebox film with multiple interpretations, it is worth listening to Crowe’s take on the material, particularly as he points out small clues and hints that you might miss the first or second time around. He also discusses his numerous influences, including Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder, and the important role that he saw music playing in the film. “Prelude to a Dream” is a six-minute freeform meditation on the meaning of the film disguised as a featurette. Self-reflexively narrated by Crowe and featuring behind-the-scenes footage, it is purposefully ambiguous and just slightly pretentious, but perhaps a good introduction for anyone who has not yet seen it. The title of the 10-minute featurette “Hitting It Hard” refers to the work done by Crowe and the film’s stars in promoting the film, from Dallas, Texas, to Seoul, Korea, to Paris, to London. Odd as it sounds, this featurette focuses entirely on the film’s promotional tour, with plenty of footage of various international premieres, as well as snippets from Larry King Live and Charlie Rose. You get to hear Crowe snoring, see Tom Cruise with bedhead, and look at dozens of fans from across the world crying in the presence of Cruise and Cruz. By far the best moment, though, is when a French journalist in Paris asks Cruise if he still thinks he’s real. Priceless. The photo gallery begins with an audio introduction by photographer Neal Preston, who explains his relationship with Crowe (they used to go on the road together in Crowe’s Rolling Stone days), Crowe’s affection for behind-the-scenes photographs, and the experience of shooting the deserted Times Square scene. The photo gallery itself is divided into eight sections, each of which contains several dozen images. Finally, we also get a brief, minute-and-a-half interview with Paul McCartney in a segment from the tabloid TV show Entertainment Tonight; the Leftfield/Afrika Bambaataa “Afrika Shox” music video; and two trailers (an unreleased teaser trailer and an international trailer).

    Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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