Vanilla Sky is one of those movies that, for one reason or another, I never got around to seeing – until now. And it also happens to be one of those movies that nobody ever says, "Meh, it was okay". Cameron Crowe‘s surreal swirl of romance, sci-fi, thriller, and drama is a divisive piece of work, resulting in the vast majority of viewers either loving it or loathing it.
So that being said, there’s very little I can say within the circumstance of this review about this movie that will sway you one way or the other. Vanilla Sky is just one of those flicks you have to see for yourself, and make your own mind up about.
But whichever end your mind is made up about – one thing is certain: Vanilla Sky will fuck with your head.
Set at some point during the turn of the century in New York City, David Aames (Tom Cruise) is a rich man who inherited his father’s lucrative publishing company. He lives the easy life, cruising through one self-centered luxurious moment at a time and frequently shirking his obligations. The story begins with him in a casual-sex relationship with Juliana "Julie" Giana (Cameron Diaz), which soon starts to spiral from NSA to an intimidating stalking situation.
Leaving Sofia’s place in the morning, he is confronted by Julie, who has been following and waiting for him. Asking to speak with him, he goes for a ride with her in her car. Julie begins to drive wildly, beginning a tirade of twisted and obsessive scorned affection for David. The journey ends with the car careening off a bridge, killing Julie, and severely injuring David causing major damages to his face.
Meanwhile, the story continues a parallel plot, set at some conceivable point in the future where David is imprisoned. He is awaiting trial for a murder, and being examined by a psychologist named Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). David’s face is covered by a mask, hiding his disfigured features, while McCabe tries to discern the specifics of the apparent insanity afflicting the main character.
And that is where things become weird. Elements surrounding David’s life become surreal and distorted, with some aspects beyond explanation. David’s perspective shifts dramatically as events progress, in which he begins to question not only his sanity, but joins the audience in questioning the fabric of his reality itself.
The writing of Vanilla Sky is extraordinarily solid, with multiple layers of symbolism and themes with considerable depth. Unfortunately, this solidarity also turns out to be its biggest weakness. The girth of the ambiguity and abstract nature of the plot as it develops is so overwhelming that it will be a major turn-off for scores of viewers.
While many, like me, find it thrilling to connect puzzle pieces of abstract thriller-style movies, there are some many clues in the movie that it’s impossible to spot them all with one viewing. It’s not simply a case of paying close attention – the layering of themes and symbols and clues is subsequently overdone, it’s just impossible to catch all the elements within one viewing.
Despite this, there are some good performances in Vanilla Sky. Tom Cruise is always an enjoyable actor to watch, this may not be exactly his strongest role. Cameron Diaz is brilliant and formidable, in the overly obsessive (and murderous) girlfriend – with a performance that is quite frightening. I was impressed with Kurt Russell, who was surprising to me in his shrink role, particularly towards the climax as he learns certain “truths.”
However, the highlight is Noah Taylor in his abstract performance of Edmund Ventura. Taylor is an impressive performer in his own right, but his role in this film transcends that of expected archetypes, and takes on more of an ambiguous gatekeeper – in both literal and a spiritual sense. His questions that rise throughout the story during his short appearances are elemental to the momentum of the plot.
On the technical side, the filmmaking is of a good standard, though there are some obvious faults that stand out in certain places. Blue/green screen work (not just during the later sequences) stands out incredibly, as does certain ADR overdubbing moments that take you out of the moment.
At the end of the day, I found Vanilla Sky to be a magnetic film with some compelling arguments and interpretations to the story that made for an enjoyable flick. That being said, the movie is overinundated with too many symbols, themes, and clues – it’s impossible to catch them all in a single viewing; and while those that enjoy the film will delight in going back to spot them, most people will just find it to be annoying, overwhelming, or sadly narcissistic.
Again, Vanilla Sky is one of those movies you just have to rate for yourself. You’re either going to love it with the desire to watch it again; or you’re going to hate it and consider it a waste of your time. I’d suggest adding it to your queue for later consideration.