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Film / Vanilla Sky

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"The sweet is never as sweet without the sour."

Vanilla Sky is a 2001 Psychological Thriller film starring Tom Cruise, and adapted and directed by Cameron Crowe.

David Aames (Cruise) tells the story from a prison cell to his psychiatrist, Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell), while wearing a prosthetic mask he refuses to take off: David was a Millionaire Playboy who inherited a publishing company after the death of his father. He met Sofia (Penélope Cruz). As they became instantly attracted to each other, he brushed aside his "fuck buddy", Julianna (Cameron Diaz). When Julianna heard of this, she tried to kill herself and David in a car accident. She died, but David survived with a disfigured face. He is haunted by increasingly bizarre occurrences.

This movie is a remake of 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes ("Abre Los Ojos") by Alejandro Amenábar. Penelope Cruz plays the same role in both movies.

Major spoilers ahead.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The facial disfigurement of the protagonist is notably less pronounced than the one in the original Spanish film.
  • An Aesop: Several possible ones:
    • "The sweet is never as sweet without the sour." In other words, pure pleasure and happiness are meaningless without displeasure and unhappiness to give them context. David has the opportunity to live out a privileged, paradisiac existence in his lucid dream, in the company of the woman he loves and his best friend, but ultimately decides that such an existence is meaningless because of its unreality, and he'd much rather live in the real world, however flawed and imperfect it might be.
    • Roger Ebert described the film as such: "Think it all the way through, and Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky is a scrupulously moral picture. It tells the story of a man who has just about everything, thinks he can have it all, is given a means to have whatever he wants, and loses it because — well, maybe because he has a conscience." David could have lived out his lucid dream in peace and happiness, but his guilt over his careless treatment of Julie, which led to her suicide, resulted in the "glitch" which caused disruptions in his dream.
  • Alien Sky: The sky is the same milky orange with white clouds as the sky in David's mother's favorite painting, so his subconscious made it that color all the time.
  • All Just a Dream: An unusual example, in that different interpretations of the film tend to boil down not to whether the film is a dream or not, but rather to how much of it is. The most basic interpretation is that offered by tech support: after the nightclub scene, David never saw Sofia again, signed a contract with Life Extension and put himself into a coma in which he dreamed the events of the latter half of the film. The bizarre occurrences were glitches due to his repressed guilt over Julianna. In the end, David decides to wake up from the dream. Alternate interpretations argue that the entire film is a dream, or that the latter two-thirds of the film are David's dream during his coma.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Word of God says the ending can be interpreted in five different ways (though there are doubtless more):
    • Everything tech support says is true.
    • The entire film is a dream.
    • Everything after the car accident is David's dream while in a coma.
    • The entire film is the plot of Brian's book.
    • Everything after the car accident is a hallucination caused by David's medication.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: David doesn't really mean it, he's just trying to stop Julianna from killing them both.
  • Arc Words:
    • "Open your eyes."
    • "I'll tell you in another life, when we are both cats."
    • "Every passing minute is a another chance to turn it all around."
    • "What is happiness to you, David?"
    • "The sweet isn't as sweet without the sour."
    • "This is a revolution of the mind."
    • "The subconscious is a powerful thing.
    • "People will read again."
    • "David Jr. was a real delight as a child."
    • "Wake up."
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Dr. McCabe insists that he is real, that he is not a creation placed in David's dream world. He has his Tomato in the Mirror moment when he states again that he has two daughters and Tech Support says "What are their names?"
  • Aside Glance: Rebecca Dearborn looks directly at the camera just as David is having his "Eureka!" Moment.
  • As Himself: Conan O'Brien makes a quick cameo. Spielberg's cameo might also be an example of this.
  • Berserk Button: Do NOT have the audacity to call an obvious mask an "aesthetic regenerative shield"...
    Dr Pomeranz: It's a helpful unit.
    David: Good. Because, for a minute there, I thought we were talking about a FUCKING MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASK!!!
  • Betty and Veronica: Subverted — David makes it clear from the very beginning that he has no real interest in Julianna (the "Veronica" of the two) and is really just using her for casual sex.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The first words spoken in the film are "abre los ojos", Spanish for "open your eyes", which doubles as a reference to the original film.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Because it was All Just a Dream, all the scenes after the nightclub didn't really happen. David never did get Sofia in the end and he's still disfigured. Then he decides to return to the real world, set far into the future where they can fix his face and he may even have the chance to find Sofia "in another life." Additionally, he will probably keep and cherish the dream memories of Sofia. Altogether, an ending which leaves you hopeful.
    • He's also flat broke, not having bothered to provide for himself.
  • Broken Masquerade: Of the Artificial Realm variety.
  • The Cameo: Steven Spielberg pops in for a minute at David's party.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Benny, the dog. And, by extension, "Life Extension" company.
  • Climactic Elevator Ride: Tom Cruise's character meets with "Tech Support", who proceeds to explain what exactly's been happening to him throughout the film. To drive it home, the elevator ride is impossibly long, making it clear that Cruise is in a dreamworld.
  • Coitus Uninterruptus
  • Cuckoo Nest
  • Deliberately Monochrome: A brief sequence when Brian chases after Sofia.
  • Dream Apocalypse: The movie ends with the revelation that most of what happened in the movie was All Just a Dream and the main character, David, had been cryogenically frozen and put into a permanent state of lucid dreaming. The dream turns into a nightmare and the protagonist ends up accidentally murdering his girlfriend. When he realizes it is a dream, he is given the choice to start over again with everything happy again, but chooses to wake up instead. His girlfriend appears and he realizes that though he didn't really kill her, she has long since died of old age. However, it is hinted at that they will see each other again as she says she has something to tell him "in the next life, when we are both cats." When the Lotus-Eater Machine was revealed, a psychologist, David's only confidante, argues vehemently that he is not a figment of David's imagination. The dream technician explained to David that he shouldn't feel bad for him, because he is just a superficial character inspired by a movie David once saw. This was proven when the psychologist was unable to recall the names of his two beloved daughters, because David had not thought of them.
  • Dream Emergency Exit: The protagonist realizes at the end of the film that he's in a lucid dream, after giving his body to a program called "Life Extension". First, he calls out for "Tech Support" in which case most of the dream stops and a man enters his dream to explain the situation and his current options. The protagonist opts to return to real life, despite knowing that 150 years have passed since he entered the dream; he's then told to kill himself in the dream to wake up, so he throws him from the roof and is next shown opening his eyes in presumably the real world.
  • Dream Intro: The film opens with David recounting a dream to his psychologist in which he woke up to find very post-apocalyptic like New York that is completely abandoned.
  • Dream Within a Dream: David has several dreams during the movie.
    • And in the end, we cannot say for sure that David has woken up. After all, he wakes with Sofia telling him to "open his eyes" — and we didn't see him hit the ground (he is terrified about the impact, not about the heights). Maybe the entire movie was just the tech support fixing the glitch?
      • According to IMDB, the voice at the end was provided by Laura Fraser, not Cameron Diaz or anyone else from the rest of the film. Not that it invalidates the above argument, but it does lose one of its legs.
  • Driven to Suicide: Julianna and David.
  • Dying Dream: Possibly.
  • Ethical Slut: Here seen working better in theory than in a reality where people are lying to themselves.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: David realizes he's dreaming while Rebecca Dearborn from Life Extension is giving her sales pitch.
  • Foreign Remake: Of the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos. The director of that film was credited as a producer and, as mentioned, Penelope Cruz played the same character in both films. Nearly every scene is identical as well, making this a closer remake than most examples.
  • Foreshadowing: "Ellie".
    • Fun drinking game: count how many times someone mentions dreams or nightmares, or admonishes David to wake up.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: It's a lot easier to catch a lot of the foreshadowing with the "pause" button on your remote.
    • A specific example: David's car has a sticker on it which reads 2/30/01. As the 30th of February does not occur in the Gregorian calendar, this may be a subtle hint that the entire film is All Just a Dream.
  • Friends with Benefits: David has a "Fuck Buddy" relationship with Julianna. Julianna takes things a little more seriously, and when she finds out the true nature of the relationship, it doesn't end well.
  • Fun with Acronyms: "Ellie" for L.E.
  • Gainax Ending: See “Ambiguous Ending” above.
  • Genre-Busting: Psychological thriller? Romantic drama? Science fiction?
  • A Glitch in the Matrix: Becomes increasingly common as the movie progresses.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: When David begins to become rowdy and aggressive during his first session with McCabe, the supervising police officer in the next room comes inside and yells at him, before the mild-mannered McCabe intervenes and asks him to leave, before resuming his line of questioning. David lampshades the "good cop, bad cop" approach immediately afterwards. Makes sense: the entire encounter is part of David's dreams which he's constructed from the popular culture he's experienced — of course the cops act like the cops in the movies, because he expects them to.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Even the "good" people in the movie like Brian and Sofia make morally questionable decisions: Brian tells Julie that she's David's fuckbuddy, for instance, and Sofia's (admittedly understandable) abandoning of a David very clearly in need of help. Similarly, even the "bad" people are sympathetic and mostly mean well: Julie's suffering Love Makes You Evil more than she's actually a villain.
  • Homage: David is a fan of French new wave films, which later influenced the characters and situations he creates within the lucid dream. In reference to this, jump cuts reminiscent of Godard films pop up here and there.
  • Hope Spot: The morning after the nightclub, it looks like things are starting to turn around for David: he undergoes facial reconstruction, begins a relationship with Sofia, and he and Brian repair their friendship. Then Julie makes a reappearance. And in the end the trope is subverted in that it turns out that the whole sequence after the nightclub had been deliberately constructed on David's request in the first place.
  • How We Got Here: The beginning is told from David to Curtis.
  • Human Popsicle: David becomes one.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Julie to David.
  • Infodump: During the exceptionally long Climactic Elevator Ride, tech support explains all the Mind Screw in the film up to that point in truly exhaustive detail, and then continues when the elevator reaches the roof.
  • Informed Ability: Sofia is supposed to be a professional dancer, but her moves on the dance floor in the nightclub don't indicate this. Granted, in this case, she's merely dancing for fun, whereas there's an earlier scene showing her practising in a ballet studio.
  • Intimate Marks: David notices a mole between Sofia's breasts. It becomes a somewhat important plot point during the Mind Screw climax.
  • Ironic Echo: Well, The Reveal is like this to a phrase said much, much earlier.
    David: My dreams are a cruel joke. They taunt me. Even in my dreams I'm an idiot... who knows he's about to wake up to reality. If I could only avoid sleep. But I can't. I try to tell myself what to dream. I try to dream that I am flying. Something free. It never works...
    • One that could be interpreted as either this or a Meaningful Echo: "I'll see you in another life, when we are both cats."
  • Lampshade Hanging/This Is Reality: When the founder of Life Extension is being interviewed on television, he himself admits that the company's product "sounds like something out of science fiction".
  • Last-Name Basis: Played With almost to the point of subversion. We tend to think that this is how things go between David and McCabe because the latter is an authority figure of sorts. Only after The Reveal do we realize that in reality it's an example of another trope - One Name Only, as McCabe, being just a figment of David's imagination, literally has no first name.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall:
    Ventura [pointing towards the camera]: Your panel of observers are waiting for you to choose.
    David: *looks towards the camera*
    • The "splice", when David's "real" life ends and his lucid dream begins, happens at almost exactly the halfway point of the film.
  • Leno Device: Benny the dog and his owner get interviewed by Conan O'Brien.
  • Lighter and Softer: Compared to the original Open Your Eyes, which was darker, crueler, and scarier.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The most valid interpretation of most of the film's setting: David was actually in a coma the whole time, and what was happening around him was part of his dream, a lucid dream sustained by a machine he agreed to be hooked on to before leaving the realm of the living.
  • Love at First Sight: David and Sofia more or less fall in love with each other after just one meeting.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: David strings Julia along and uses her for sex while having no particular attachment, while she secretly loves him. Her unrequited love for him eventually leads her to attempt a murder-suicide.
  • Majority-Share Dictator: Upon his father's death, David is given 51% control of his father's company, with the remaining 49% split equally between seven board members. A sub-plot in the film revolves around the board's efforts to assume control of David's share and put a stop to the essentially dictatorial control he enjoys over the company despite being an absent-minded Millionaire Playboy.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Sofia could be interpreted as such, at least from David's perspective. Played with, in that the version of Sofia in the latter half of the film isn't the real Sofia, but rather David's idealized construction of her who exists entirely for his benefit.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The Twist Ending still leaves just enough room for this trope to fit.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Red dress...strappy shoes...the saddest girl to ever hold a martini."
  • Millionaire Playboy: David.
  • Mind Screw: Most of the second half up to The Reveal.
  • Murder-Suicide: Julie deliberately drives her car off a bridge with David inside in an attempt to kill both of them. David survives (albeit disfigured), while she does not.
  • My Greatest Second Chance: Maybe?
  • Non-Indicative Name: The service Life Extension offers is called "Lucid Dream". Rather misleading, considering that real-life lucid dreams are dreams in which the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The opening dream sequence. Seeing Times Square completely empty rivals seeing London completely abandoned just a year later for creepiness.
    • Or four years later, if we take the scene of the original Spanish movie, which takes place in the Gran Vía, Madrid's equivalent of the Fifth Avenue.
  • Post-Mortem Comeback: Julie.
  • Property of Love: Defied — in her heart, Julianna truly belongs to David, and they both know it. Yet they pretend to simply be friends who have fun together, and it works just fine... Until it doesn't.
  • Reality Warper: David can manipulate the reality of his lucid dream at will.
  • Red Herring: The Seven Dwarves. Although David suspects them of being involved, they actually have nothing to do with the strange things that happen to him.
  • Reference Overdosed: According to Word of God, there are 429 pop-culture references in the film, 428 of which were intentional. Bizarrely, many of these references actually directly influence the plot, almost to the point of deconstructing the idea of pop-culture references in fiction: tech support explains that many of the characters and situations he created in his lucid dream were derived from the popular culture he experienced when younger.
    • One scene duplicates the album cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Which turns out to be the clue to David's character that he has dreamt his memories about Sofia, because his memory of the two of them walking on Times Square is just a memory of Dylan's album cover, which he confused with reality.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: David jokingly evokes this trope following the car crash, only he substitutes in "mildly" for "greatly".
  • Shaky Cam: Handheld cameras are used more and more frequently as David's mental state deteriorates.
  • Significant Anagram: Rearranging the letters of the name David Aames reveals the phrase "I am saved."
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Frequently when licensed music is used. Special note go to Sofia's death and the sequence in which David realizes he's dreaming — to the sounds of "Good Vibrations" by The Beach Boys.
  • Standard '50s Father: It is implied that David invented a father figure for himself (Dr. McCabe) in this mold, based on Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. If you look closely in one scene, you can see the guard in the prison watching the movie on a television.
  • Taking You with Me: Julianna.
  • Techno Babble: Played with. When David meets with doctors, he studies up on what the subject, and is able discuss it with them. It sounds to the average audience member like standard doctor-speak. Later on, what the doctors are saying becomes a whirl of confusing gibberish, even to David.
  • Textual Celebrity Resemblance: In the nightclub, Sofia asks Brian where the bathroom is and he says it's behind "the girl who looks like Björk".
  • That Came Out Wrong: Said verbatim by Bryan after he unintentionally insults David in the nightclub.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Until the ending.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Dr. McCabe finds out that he is an artificial construct in David's dream when tech support asks him an Armor-Piercing Question.
    McCabe: I have two daughters.
    Tech Support: What are their names?
  • Trope Maker: Vanilla Sky/Abre los Ojos beat Inception to the punch by more than ten years, in terms of exploring the idea of medically-induced lucid dreams.
  • Twist Ending
  • Unexpectedly Abandoned: The opening scene features David running and screaming as he discovers downtown Manhattan is completely deserted.
  • Wham Shot: Downplayed in that the camera doesn't linger on it, and the LE corporation had already come into focus before it, but still a mysterious Reality Warper stranger suddenly resurfacing in the LE ad definitely qualifies. And before that, there is a sign of LE itself shown on TV.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Subverted, leading to Fridge Brilliance. After the accident, David mentions that, in addition to getting his face disfigured, he broke his arm, which affected his mobility thereof somewhat. He's later seen moving the arm in question rather awkwardly, and his medical team offer to do something about it when he complains about his facial disfigurement. Upon waking up the morning after the nightclub scene, however, his arm is never brought up again and he seems to have inexplicably regained full use of it, despite never receiving additional surgery on it. This is a subtle hint that he is, in fact, dreaming.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Not only does Julianna destroy her own life and David's, her memory also destroys a certain universe.
  • Would Hit a Girl: David apparently beats Sofia, but has no memory of it and resoundingly denies it. Later, he smothers her to death with a pillow. Of course, both of these events only happened in his dream.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: While David has only spent a few years (maximum) in his dream, 150 have passed outside.