An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · December 24, 2019, 9:55 PM PST
Vanilla Sky

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on December 14, 2001, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

A change in emphasis can be a dangerous thing when it comes to cinematic remakes, even when the material remains essentially the same. That’s the lesson of Vanilla Sky, which writer/director Cameron Crowe adapted from Alejandro Amenábar’s award-winning Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes. Crowe has never attempted a movie remotely like this before, and while there’s nothing wrong with an “outside” director stretching into the genre (we wouldn’t have gotten The Exorcist or Silence of the Lambs, among others, if they didn’t), Crowe resists treating Sky as genre for as long as possible, even as he maintains strict fidelity to Eyes’ story. (Given how closely Sky’s plot echoes that of Eyes, it was fun to watch Paramount, Crowe and co. bend over backwards to hide story details when any curious film buff could go out and rent the original.)

Tom Cruise certainly fits the bill as the story’s protagonist, here called David Aames, a narcissistic child of privilege who runs a publishing house he inherited from his father. (Eduardo Noriega, who played the lead role of César in Eyes, has been described as a “Spanish Tom Cruise.”) Women fling themselves at David’s feet, but he’s not above singling out a friend’s date for pursuit, specifically Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her part from the original), whom his pal Brian (Jason Lee) brings to one of David’s parties. Romantic sparks fly and they spend the night at Sofia’s apartment, but upon leaving the next morning, David is picked up by Julie (Cameron Diaz), a friend and “fuck buddy” who clearly takes their relationship more seriously than David does. Incensed by his dismissive attitude, she drives her car off a bridge, killing herself and leaving David badly scarred.

Right here is where Crowe’s approach deviates from Amenábar’s. In Eyes, César’s pursuer is Nuría, an obsessive, clearly unbalanced woman played by the slightly odd-looking Najwa Nimri. Her presence sets a menacing tone from the start, while Diaz’s Julie comes off as a vivacious, alluring woman who can’t really be blamed for getting upset by the way David treats her. David describes her as a “stalker,” which certainly applies to Nimri’s character but doesn’t reflect the Julie we see. And nothing about Julie suggests she’d be the type to drive herself to her own death.

Then there’s the matter of the mood. Now, I’m not complaining about the lack of thriller ambiance just because I’m reviewing Sky for FANGORIA, but anyone familiar with Eyes will know that the story eventually heads off in some pretty off-kilter directions. Amenábar prepares the audience for them by suggesting that things aren’t quite right from the start, but Crowe, even as he duplicates some of Amenábar’s dialogue and shots, treats much of the story as a romantic drama. There are hints that Sky will take a dark turn (the film is framed as flashbacks by a masked David as he faces a murder charge and is interviewed by a psychiatrist played by Kurt Russell), but when things eventually do turn weird, it seems out of place.

Paradoxically, though, the final act is the most emotionally gripping part of Vanilla Sky; it’s tautly played and does satisfyingly tie the story threads together. Up to and during this part of the film, Cruise is quite convincing as he rides an emotional rollercoaster, ultimately becoming unsure of what is and isn’t real and dealing throughout with his physical disfigurement. (In keeping with Crowe’s down-to-earth approach, though, Michele Burke’s makeup avoids the true deformity César suffered in Eyes; David remains a clearly once-handsome man who’s suffered a bad battering.)

Cruz retains the appeal she had in Eyes and shares good chemistry with Cruise (no surprise, considering where their co-starring gig led), but without the threat that seemed to ominously hover on the sidelines in the first film, their onscreen relationship seems less urgent. (It feels draggy, too; even with the movies’ close similarity, Sky runs nearly 20 minutes longer than Eyes.) It will be interesting to see if mass audiences take to Sky, or whether they’ll be nonplussed by the radical tonal and narrative shifts it makes. Evidently Crowe wanted to expand the story’s appeal beyond genre fans (and devotees of the original might well feel betrayed by this version), but the ultimate irony could end up being that Amenábar’s own The Others will wind up outgrossing Sky.