|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 21 May 2002|
Surreal and hypnotic are two definitions that “Vanilla Sky” elicits from the viewer. The movie flirts with connotations of being a thriller with strong mystery overtones, and a presentation of philosophy and the metaphysical aspects of life itself, tinged with growing paranoia. Audiences talk about “Vanilla Sky” at lot, and the general consensus is that director/screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s and star Tom Cruise’s efforts will be heartily embraced or thoroughly shunned.
The story is actually from “Abre Los Ojos,” a movie made by Alejandro Amenabar and Mateo Gil (also available on DVD). One of the curiosities so fitting is that Penelope Cruz reprises her role from the original movie in the Cameron Crowe version as Sofia Serrano. In “Vanilla Sky,” Cruise’s character, David Aames, finds himself trapped in a recurring set of twisted dreams and chilling nightmares, and the audience has to wonder how Cruz felt at playing the character in an alternate rendition of the story, just speaking her lines in English this time.
Chapter 1 opens with a subdued effect, wind whipping through settings around New York City, which snaps into and out of focus like pictures being taken through a winking camera lens. The wind echoes through the front and center speaker(s). Sounds cut into the audio gently, like a radio being tuned to frequency at a level that barely imposes on the hearing of the listener. Gradually, those alien sounds become words spoken by a woman’s accented voice. In bed, David listens to a woman’s soft voice saying, “Open your eyes.” (Of particular note, notice that the voice of the woman belongs to Penelope Cruz.) In the bathroom, David plucks a single gray hair, demonstrating his vanity.
Music underscores the action as David dresses and gets ready for the day. Out on the street, there is no sound. David’s car roaring up from the underground parking garage makes that silence scream even louder than the sports car’s exhaust. David pulls out into the emptiness of the city under a cream-colored vanilla sky. He cruises the streets at 9:05 a.m., a time when the city should be alive with frantic movement, edging the watcher directly into the infamous Twilight Zone. Leaving his car, panicked, David runs headlong down Times Square. The music is hard driving, a techno-beat that echoes through the surround system and lights up the subwoofer to a degree. Figures dance on the buildings around David.
Waking in a cold sweat in his bed, David listens to a woman’s voice again. “Open your eyes.” Only this time the voice belongs to Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), David’s sometime lover. Stepping directly into the surreal aspect of David’s life, the previous scene replays almost completely, only with the addition of Julie and the rest of Manhattan in place. Another aspect that comes immediately to the viewer’s attention is the voiceover narrative of David talking to someone about a murder he is charged with committing. In this brief exchange, the tone is altered, letting the viewer know the events we’re watching are a flashback to a time prior to the crime.
Chapter 2 moves further into the plot, lining up some of the threats facing our protagonist. David is the son of a publishing mogul who was killed in a traffic accident and left a huge entertainment empire to his son, who has no real interest in the business. David’s prime opponents are the board of trustees who own 49 percent of the publishing company to his 51 percent. Music steps up to fill in the background, becoming a prevalent part of the story. Brian (Jason Lee), David’s closest friend, makes mention of the sour and the sweet of life, just before they almost get killed in a traffic accident. Music drives again as David waltzes into the board meeting late. The narrative voice picks up again, reminding the viewer that more is going on than meets the eye.
In Chapter 3, David is introduced wearing a mask and talking to psychologist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell) about his supposed crime. David insists that no murder occurred. Voices echo in the background, weaving through the front speakers. David believes the his board of directors framed him to put him behind bars.
Moving to the birthday bash in Chapter 4, thumping basso beats rumble from the subwoofer, while conversations come from the center speaker(s) and the music issues from the mains so that the viewer feels as though he or she is following David through the room. David’s attorney give him a drunken speech, telling him to claim his life: “Learn to be an asshole.”
Chapter 5 has uninvited party guest Julie hitting on David with a fierce, obsessive intensity. Downstairs again, David speaks to Sofia, flirting with her, then tells her he has a stalker, indicating Julie. The dialogue is some of the best in the movie, and lines from this exchange are used again and again throughout the movie with emotional impact and deepening meaning. Part of the whole audio treat of “Vanilla Sky” is the use of the repeated phrases and cues that come together at the end.
Chapter 6 continues the flirtation between David and Sofia while introducing the “Vanilla Sky” painting by Monet. Again, the dialogue between Brian and David is precisely on target, as is the sweet and sour speech again. The guitar work in Chapter 7 underscores David walking Sofia home, placing the audience in the same narrow alley where she lives. Later, the piano tune underscores the getting-to-know-you small talk that goes on between Sofia and David, making the familiar talk at once intimate and innocent.
Dr. McCabe and David’s interview continues in Chapter 8. David’s wild dance and leap against the bars of his cell segues into the memory of the night with Sofia again. The light-hearted music plays from the main speakers while the center speaker(s) carry the conversation. Sofia tells David that “Every passing minute is a chance to turn it around,” one of the movie’s primary messages.
A horrific vehicular incident in Chapter 9 deliberately freezes the audio freezes for a moment, providing a moment of silence sandwiched between the shrill shriek of tires, the snapping steel guardrails, and the sudden impact that destroys the front end of the car.
Chapter 10 has falling leaves whispering through the air, delicate music and birdcalls providing a quiet background to a meeting. In Chapter 13, the throbbing backbeat of the music fills the surround sound system and hammers through the subwoofer in a party sequence.
As the story keeps rolling, things become more and more layered. The past changes, never exactly what it was, while the future becomes more and more in question, while the present inextricably links with dream till everything seems to be happening at once. Yet, through it all, the strand of story—the tale of David’s life—remains complete.
Crowe plays fairly with his audience, even though some viewers have felt otherwise. A little patience is required to get through the next few chapters because Crowe doesn’t let up on his planned plot assault. All the pieces are there, all the clues, all the jumping-off places where the viewer can make wild, extrapolative leaps of logic. Many viewers are going to be frustrated with “Vanilla Sky” to a degree, because the actual underpinnings of the story remain constantly within view, just around the corner of the eye. In the end, viewers will probably feel both elated and betrayed with the way things come together, which is probably the very reaction Crowe is going for.
The special features package on the DVD includes commentary on the movie by Crowe and composer Nancy Wilson (Crowe’s wife), featuring an interview with Cruise. Wilson adds guitar strumming during the commentary that keeps the piece fun and lively. A lot of history is included in the commentary, such as the Dakota (David’s home in the movie) not being available for proximity filming since “Rosemary’s Baby.” Crowe also recommends the “Twilight Zone” episode “Shadowplay,” which plays with some of the same issues raised in the film. Also, several of the clues are pointed out, such as the inspection sticker date 02/30/01 on David’s car in Chapter 2. Crowe’s two boys even put in an audio appearance during the commentary, which makes everything more real. Crowe makes the commentary a blast to listen to, with his insight and his genuine love of his family, world and work. The conversation with Cruise comes during Chapter 13, and is funny and touching.
“Hitting It Hard” is a video documentary of the press tour undertaken by the director and the stars, including bits on “Larry King Live” and all around the world. Cruise and Crowe come across as so genuine that the average viewer can’t help but be interested in watching them. The understated musical score that goes with the piece — so like the movie — brings an easier enjoyment of the string of interviews.
“Vanilla Sky” is not a light movie to watch. The story unfolds slowly, but the pace and tension implied by the events and the characters are well done. The overall effect is aided by the fast jump cuts, such as David speaking through the mask in the holding cell of the jail as if all of the events have already taken place. The structure and integrity of the movie is also similar to “Waking Life,” another film that probes the meaning of human existence, and the interweaving of the storytelling will certainly grab fans of “Memento.” For fans patient enough, the story and the acting offer a lot of rewards, and the musical composition is amazing. Those who enjoy the movie will probably find repeated viewings in the offing, so purchase of the DVD, especially for the commentary on the film and the clue reveals, will be a good idea.
Note: David introduces Sofia to a painting that is supposedly by Monet and the inspiration the movie’s title. However, the painting in question is actually Vincent Van Gogh’s “Yellow Wheat and Cypress.”