Vanilla Sky
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Vanilla Sky is a remake of Alejandro Amenabar's Abre los ojos ("Open Your Eyes"), a superb thriller that brought him offers from Hollywood, which he accepted to make The Others. In addition to beckoning Amenabar away from Spain, Hollywood also purchased the rights to remake Abre los ojos. It's no secret that American audiences are wary of foreign language movies, so producers saw tremendous potential for Abre los ojos if they could Americanize it and inject recognizable American movie stars in the main roles. So Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz eagerly signed on, and Penelope Cruz (Cruise's newest beau after his recent divorce) agreed to reprise her role from the original film. And Cameron Crowe, who recently scored big with Almost Famous, signed on as director and screenwriter.

The resulting movie is in the unenviable position of being directly compared with one of the finest thrillers of the past decade. Increasing the likelihood of comparisons, Crowe retained almost all of the basic structure of the original film. This is somewhat surprising because Abre los ojos relies to a great extent upon its secrets (as does Amenabar's The Others). Crowe doesn't rework these secrets, so if you've seen Abre los ojos, you'll know almost exactly what Vanilla Sky holds in store. This is a movie primarily for people who never saw the original, but Crowe shows such reverence for Amenabar's film that his own movie never completely takes off.

While the mechanics of the plot are essentially unchanged, Crowe did see fit to tinker with the characters, and to a large extent, it's these changes that keep this otherwise respectful remake from ever challenging the original. And then again, maybe it was Tom Cruise who requested the changes because in Amenabar's film his character isn't particularly likable. In Abre los ojos, this character is a spoiled brat, now a successful businessman, who thinks nothing of using his friends to get what he wants. He has a great smile and a beautiful head of hair, but he's also shallow and manipulative. In Vanilla Sky, David Aames (Cruise) has some of these same characteristics, but he's made much more likable. We find out his parents died in a traffic accident, leaving him in control of a publishing empire. We feel for him because of his loss and immediately forgive him for being selfish and irresponsible. He's like a kid in a candy store -- "I'm living the life," he says -- and we can hardly fault him seriously for his transgressions. Exactly because we don't have far to go in liking David and sympathizing with his plight, we fail to develop much emotional involvement. Because Abre los ojos must win us over to its central character, we invest more energy in the drama we're watching. So Vanilla Sky seems rigged from the beginning, whereas Abre los ojos is edgy and surprising.

It's easy to imagine American producers (or an image conscious Cruise) insisting that the central character be made more likable so that American audiences would immediately empathize with him, but in the process they robbed the movie of a crucial element of suspense. While Abre los ojos takes us on a truly amazing journey, Vanilla Sky allows us to be passive observers.

The most troubling character change occurs with Penelope Cruz's character, Sofia. In Vanilla Sky, she's a mischievous sprite. David first sees her at a party. She's across the room, having arrived with David's best friend, Brian Shelby (Jason Lee). It's rather remarkable that David even sees Sofia because the party is filled with drop-dead gorgeous models. Penelope Cruz is a beautiful woman, but here Sofia gets lost in the crowd -- for everyone except David, who picks her out because the screenplay says he must. In Abre los ojos, Sofia does brighten the room when she enters. She stands out because Amenabar knew she had to stand out. But Crowe is making a big Hollywood movie and that means he saturates the screen with color and movement and beautiful people -- not to mention a non-stop barrage of pop songs that crush every quiet moment in the movie. (Crowe really needs to learn something about subtlety and the value of underplaying scenes.) In the process, the story's crucial scenes are constantly under the threat of being overwhelmed by extraneous motion and sound.

The ensuing dialogue between David and Sofia is artificial and contrived. It's "meeting cute" at its worst. In Abre los ojos, however, their initial meeting is natural and sincere. They sit down and talk -- whereas Vanilla Sky has them cavort like two love-starved puppies. Everything depends upon our believing in this relationship, for this is a movie about a man who finds salvation through love. But director/writer Crowe badly botches this part of Vanilla Sky.

In spite of its shortcomings, Vanilla Sky still communicates some of the power of Abre los ojos. Even if the characters have been sanitized, the movie's plot remains intriguing and frequently compelling. I'm not going to reveal much of the movie's plot because so much of the pleasure of watching Vanilla Sky resides in the story's amazing twists, but here's a very brief sketch. David meets and falls in love with Sofia, but his recent philandering past catches up with him (Fatal Attraction style) when a seriously possessive woman named Julie (Cameron Diaz) takes exception to his new relationship. Early one morning after David leaves Sofia's apartment, Julie sees him (she's been waiting outside) and coaxes him into her car -- and then she speeds off a bridge, crashing into a stone wall. The following movie is part romantic drama; part psychological drama, with Kurt Russell playing a psychiatrist charged with determining David's state of mind; and part science-fiction thriller involving developments that I can't even begin to describe for fear of ruining the movie for potential viewers.

Vanilla Sky fumbles the romantic drama, but Crowe handles well the psychological drama and the science fiction. He almost makes the movie work in spite of the rather substantial shortcomings at the movie's center. This is still a marvelously witty story and Crowe was cagey enough to not monkey with any of the major plot twists. He does tinker with some of the particulars. For example, he completely deletes a rather shocking (and effective) bit of mayhem that comes immediately before the final scene of Abre los ojos. But the general thrust of both movies remains the same. And the final seconds of both movies remain audacious and immensely affecting. As much as I struggled with much of Vanilla Sky, I have to admit that the movie's final journey is absolutely magnificent (even if Crowe forgoes brevity in favor of a barrage of videotaped recollections). But I can't help but think that the emotions that welled up inside me were largely the result of remembering my previous experience with Abre los ojos and not so much Vanilla Sky.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Paramount
Movie Web site: Vanilla Sky



Photos: © 2001 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.