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Vanilla Sky

Vanilla Sky

By Patrick Samuel • June 14th, 2013
Paramount Pictures

Original release: December 14th, 2001
Running time: 136 minutes

Director: Cameron Crowe
Writers: Cameron Crowe, Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil

Cast: Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Kurt Russell, Cameron Diaz

“Open your eyes”

Deconstructing Cinema: One Scene At A Time, the complete series so far

Vanilla Sky

Can you tell the difference between dreams and reality?

I don’t know what’s real.

I’m real, aren’t I? I can smell the air, I can taste the food in my mouth and I can feel the pages of a book when I turn them with my fingers. I can hear the birds outside my window, I can sense the passing of time as the Earth spins and I’m aware of my thoughts as I experience all of this. This isn’t a dream and I’m not a character in someone else’s dream who’ll cease to exist when the dreamer awakes… Or am I? Are we all?

“We are used to thinking that our senses reveal a world that exists independently of our minds, but is this belief justified? What can I know about this external world? Can I be sure that what my senses report to me is accurate? Maybe my senses are giving me radically misleading information about is going on in the world outside my mind? Can I even know that an external world exists? ” ¹

Vanilla Sky is the kind of film that puts these philosophical wonderings into perspective for a mainstream audience. Directed by Cameron Crowe and released just three months after the September 11th attacks in 2001, it’s an English-language remake of the Spanish film, Abre los ojos (1997), written by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil. Right from its start we meet David Aames (Tom Cruise), who we can describe as having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Having inherited his father’s publishing firm in New York City, he’s never had to work for anything in his life, but he’s about to have himself one hell of an existential crisis.

Vanilla Sky

At the start of the film we see him waking up, gazing at his perfect reflection in the mirror before noticing a grey hair, which he proceeds to pluck. Next we see him driving, it’s still morning and it’s very quiet outside. Eventually David notices the streets that should be filled with traffic and hoards of commuters, shoppers and passersby are actually empty. Deathly empty and terrifyingly quiet. As this realization dawns on him, panic kicks in and he starts to run, eventually causing the nightmare to end and waking up safe and sound in his bed again, however, this time there’s a beautiful woman with him – Julianna “Julie” Gianni (Cameron Diaz).

David’s best friend, Brian Shelby (Jason Lee) is introduced shortly afterwards and it’s through their conversations with each other that David’s bachelor life comes to light, particularly in the scene where they’re both almost hit by truck while driving.

My own death was right there in front of me, and you know what happened? Your life flashed before my eyes.

How was it?

Almost worth dying for.

The woman Brian’s nuts about, Julie, is David’s new fuck buddy but this doesn’t deter him in the slightest bit as it would you or me, actually he seems quite proud of that fact. He’s as narcissistic as they come. A little while after, at a party, Brian arrives with a date, Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz), and not being content with Julie, he goes on to flirt with her. As they hit it off, it becomes clear to Brian that he’s going to lose out again to his better looking and wealthier friend, he’s probably used to it by it now.

Vanilla Sky

While Vanilla Sky might read up until now like a typical romantic drama with a bit of rivalry between friends thrown in, things start to get complicated when Julie becomes obsessed with pursuing a relationship with David. Confronting him after he’s been with Sofia, he then gets into a car with her and they drive, but during the course of their journey Julie becomes upset and irrational. When she drives the car, with both of them in it, off a bridge, she apparently dies in the crash while David survives but is horribly disfigured for the rest of his life. He has to wear a mask to hide the injuries, without it he looks more like the Elephant Man than the Tom Cruise we’re familiar with.

From there, Vanilla Sky begins its trek into the surreal, building toward a climax that’s more a trenchant critique on a society that’s so far taken everything it experiences at face value.

“Unable to adjust to life after his disfigurement, David alienates himself from his best freind and he is rejected by Sophia, the girl he loves. In a pit of despair, he commits c=suicide – but only after he arranges for his body to be cryogenically frozen in a state of “lucid dreaming.” While David’s body lies frozen, his brain is free to dream without ever waking into consciousness.” ²

As a film that takes place completely within a dream, Vanilla Sky gives David (and us) little clues along the way to help solve the riddle. The pieces of conscious reality he experiences are made up of memories, thoughts and desires and David recounts them all to a character he’s created in the dream, the imaginary psychiatrist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). When he realizes the life he’s known is nothing but a dream, his tech support from the Oasis Project (aka Life Extension), Edmund Ventura (Noah Taylor), appears to help guide him through the final moments to face his fears and end the dream-state.

“We learn in the final scenes of the film that most of what we have just watched is David’s dream, purchased by David from a company named Life Extension. This dream state was spliced into David’s real life to form a continuous mental life shortly before he committed suicide and his body was placed into cold storage. All memory of what happened to the “real” David between the splice point and the death of David’s body was erased from the dream. David is offered the opportunity to end the dream and have his body resuscitated. ” ²

  • [1] Mary M. Litch, Philosophy Through Film (2010), Routledge
  • [2] William Indick, Movies and the Mind: Theories Of The Great Psychoanalysts Applied to Film (2004), McFarland

Like Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Dark City (1998) and The Matrix (1999) before it Vanilla Sky presents us with the idea of a simulated reality and brings us back to Descartes original idea; “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am), meaning that while we can remain skeptical about an external world there’s one thing we can’t doubt and that’s our own minds. By not providing us with a coherent time scale, the story-time is purposely distorted to prevent us from having easy access to the film, enabling us to take just as long as it takes David in the film to figure out the truth. The film’s final moments are thus beautifully executed because it allows us that time to reflect on what we’ve experienced so far with this character.

With so much to take in; its complex and intertwining themes of love, hate, friendship, work and sex, Vanilla Sky never lets us forget its core message, that in order to live life you must open your eyes.

Vanilla Sky

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick's work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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