From first moment to last, the movie Vanilla Sky, produced by Paramount Pictures and written and directed by Cameron Crowe, offers a confusing physical landscape based on a confusing mental landscape. The viewer is never certain if he is viewing a dream or a waking reality or a warped psychological construct that might be a combination of waking and dreaming or conscious and unconscious realities.
The film opens with a voice saying "Abre los ojos." Abre Los Ojos is the name of the 1997 Spanish film of which Vanilla Sky is a remake. The voice which speaks these words, recorded on David Aames, played by Tom Cruise, alarm clock, is that of Sophia, played by Penelope Cruz. Thus, the movie begins with the hero awakening from sleep, possibly a dream, into what seems to be reality. But is it? The first voice, saying open your eyes in Spanish and then in English, is not that of the woman who is in bed with Cruise. It is a woman, if we are expecting a linear plot, who Aames has not yet met. When the alarm speaks again, it does so with the voice of Julie, played by Cameron Diaz, the one currently sharing his bed. The viewer has moments when he's fairly sure he's watching the current reality, but as the film progresses he becomes less and less certain. As Roger Ebert says: "This is the kind of movie you don't want to analyze until you've seen it two times" (Ebert unpaged). For many viewers it will require uncountable screenings.
From early on, with the empty Times Square dream sequence, the viewer becomes fairly certain that Aames is subjected to nightmares. As he runs away from his fancy car through the unreality of uninhabited real New York streets, we may become aware, perhaps on the second or third viewing, that Cruise/Aames is running away from himself. Before long the viewer becomes aware that this hero is seemingly in jail for killing someone. We are never sure who, or if this is only a paranoid fantasy. He seems to be subjected to an evil board of directors who he calls "The Seven Dwarfs."
These control freaks may be creating all his troubles. In jail, he is being questioned by a shrink named McCabe, played by Kurt Russell, who may or may not be real, who doesn't believe in dreams, and doesn't know the names of his daughters. We are made to believe that Aames dumped his "***** buddy" Julie for the new love of his life, Sophia, and that the jealous Julie, in the act of committing suicide drove her car off a bridge with Aames in it, causing his beautiful face to become horribly disfigured. The best plastic surgeons in New York can offer only a latex mask to ease his agony. Especially when he is wearing the mask, so symbolic of the many masks humans may wear to disguise or avoid their realities, the narrative landscape is blurred between dream, reality, and psychic paranoia.
The New York Times review calls Vanilla Sky a "highly entertaining, erotic science-fiction thriller that takes Mr. Crowe (the director) into Steven Spielberg territory," as "Cruise emerges from a near-fatal car crash with a grotesquely disfigured face. Then, through a miracle of cosmetic surgery, his beauty and the perfect love it once attracted are restored. Or so it seems" (Holden 28). Was Aames really disfigured in the crash, or did he die and have his body cryogenically preserved in accordance with a contract he had earlier made with the mysterious man in the bar? Perhaps the entire narrative is unreal as Aames journeys from the unconscious nightmare which his own frozen mind has created into the realization that he doesn't "want to dream any longer." In it's final moments, the film, becomes truly surrealistic as Aames makes that prolonged trip upward in that elevator against the Vanilla Sky background, the viewer is still uncertain as to whether he is making a journey of self awakening or whether he is merely conquering his fear of heights or whether this is indeed the final leap of this life and that he may indeed wake up with Sophia in another lifetime when they are both cats.
As the Times reviewer continues his exploration of the film, he notes that as Vanilla Sky "leaves behind the real world and begins exploring life as a waking dream it becomes a "meditation on parallel themes. One is the quest for eternal life and eternal youth; another is guilt and the ungovernable power of the unconscious mind to undermine science's utopian discoveries" (Holden 28). These themes become woven into the uncertain landscape that moves between the physical and the mental just as clouds move across the Vanilla Sky. As we laugh about the frozen dog Benny, we begin to see that it is possible that everything we have seen thus far is the product of a lucid dream option of cryonics as "in a union of science and entertainment life continues" for David Aames after his death. However, the promise that Life Part II would be exactly the living dream as he wished it, did not quite come true for David Aames. For David the dream seems to have become a nightmare, due to his own powerful deranged subconscious. David definitely needs the "tech support" that Life Extension is offering, and by now, so does the viewer. The landscape has become so blurred that what is physical and what is mental is highly questionable. Another reviewer describes the confusion this way:
This film makes for hours of interesting debate and conversation as every scene can be meticulously deconstructed and analyzed as it culminates into one of the most absolutely twist endings in recent memory...This is a film that will leave many baffled throughout the entire third act, making us hang on every detail that may or may not unravel the film's explanation (De Lise unpaged).
Howard Hampton, in his article in Film Comment, sees the shifting realities reflected in Vanilla Sky as not only a definite depiction of psychological underpinnings but as an outgrowth of Cruise's allegiance to Scientology. By the time the mysterious Englishman who appears to be the tech support man from L.E. shows up and says "I'm here to help you" most viewers are probably also ready for a little help and explanation. He will explain all the confusion, pain and uncertainty, put first he says to Aames: You must overcome your fears and regain control. Take hold of your life again" (Hampton 52). According to him, everyone in the room is there "only because you wanted them to be. You are their God. And not only that, you could make them obey you... Or destroy you" (Hampton 52). Thus, as Hampton continues to clarify, all that has been viewed in the movie has been drawn from the mental landscape, and in fact may even resemble what Scientology calls "engrams." These are "detailed mental image recordings that the 'preclear' mind forever plays back and disastrously reenacts" (Hampton 52). This total blurring of the film's landscape has in turn, continues Hampton, "caused people to murmur that the movie itself might constitute some kind of recruitment tract for the Church," so that this warping of reality and dream is turned into "one garbled, spasmodic/ecstatic conversion experience" (Hampton 52).
Hampton's generally negative view of the film describes it as a "creamy vanilla shake that goes down as smoothly as a perpetual sleepwalking loop" 53 This critical opinion is, it seems, important to a discussion of the mental landscape of the film as Hampton describes the Scientology oriented mindset as:
quintessential Hollywood-friendly religion of antiseptic, twelve-steps-to- transcendence psychobabble. As plastic surgery for the soul, you go in and get a reprogramming mental face-lift...One is supposed to become "clear" of traumatic memories and fears, along with unproductive emotions and antisocial ("suppressive") personality traits (Hampton 53)
It is certainly pertinent to this the exploration of this film to understand the possible contributions and ramifications of the Scientology philosophy on the narrative landscape. These possibilities are as much a part of the landscape as the bird's eye view of New York's skylines as the flying mind zooms above the city in the opening scene, centering itself finally in one luxury apartment which may or may not be a memory of a frozen dreamer.
Whether Vanilla Sky is seen as Scientology propaganda or not, the shifting landscape of the film certainly divests the playboy Aames "of his illusions while peeling off the masks of a falsified world one by one" (Hampton 52). The major defect in all this, as Aames agrees to wake up and to jump into real life is that as Hampton puts it, "there is not a trace of any other world one would want to wake up to." 53
Roger Ebert sums up the confusion nicely. If it's any consolation," he says, the hero of Vanilla…