Spare, haunting and poetic, Alejandro Amenabar's 1997 Spanish sci-fi drama Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) is one of the great cult films of the 1990s. Because of its ever-popular is-it-a-dream-or-is-it-reality premise and a juicy leading role, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood decided to make its own version. So thanks to producer/star Tom Cruise and writer/director Cameron Crowe, we now have Vanilla Sky, a "remix" (as Crowe has described it in interviews) of Abre Los Ojos, which retains many of the same elements as the original film, but spins them in such a way that they acquire new meaning. This approach might have yielded an interesting movie, but Crowe and Cruise unfortunately use it as a license to transform the story into something it never should have been--a tale of romance and redemption.
Aside from the obvious change in setting (Madrid to New York), the first noticeable difference between Abre Los Ojos and Vanilla Sky is the personality of the main character. In place of Cesar, the clueless but charming pretty boy of Amenabar's film, here we are presented with David Aames, a classic Master of the Universe--single, wealthy, handsome and a wiz with the ladies. Tired of his latest conquest, a young actress named Julie (Cameron Diaz), David is on the prowl at his birthday party when he meets Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original), who happens to be his best friend Brian's (Jason Lee) date for the evening. Never one to let a thing like friendship get in the way of a good shag, David pursues Sofia, even going as far as to escort her home after the party. Instead of sex, they share a night of bonding that leaves David love-struck and committed to turning his aimless life around. That plan is cut short by an encounter with the jealous Julie, who sweet-talks David into her car and proceeds to drive them both off a bridge. David survives the resulting crash, but incurs physical and mental scars that estrange him from the rest of the world, including Sofia. Then after one particularly horrible night, things take an unexpected turn for the better. But is this the real life or is this just fantasy…?
The events in Abre Los Ojos unfold along a similar timeline, with one significant difference: Cesar is not in love with his Sofia. That sounds like a relatively minor point, but it's key to understanding the character's psyche and to solving the movie's many riddles. Because Vanilla Sky is a Hollywood picture and, more importantly, a Tom Cruise picture, it's unthinkable that his character would only feel lust, not love, for the leading lady (or vice versa, for that matter). Crowe handles this requisite romance well enough at first and it helps that Cruise and Cruz are able to generate some actual chemistry. Once the story really kicks into gear, though, the love angle only gets in the way, rendering character motivations and one major plot point (Julie suddenly reappears…as Sofia!) almost incomprehensible. It also lets David off the hook for his less-than-noble actions later in the film; after all, Hollywood has always trained us to think that a man in love can do no wrong.
The film commits its worst crimes as it enters the home stretch, beginning with a visit from a character we'll call Exposition Man (Noah Taylor). Up until this point, Crowe has played the reality-vs.-dream game rather well, dropping enough clues to keep us guessing without giving the whole game away. (His encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture comes in handy, with shots that deliberately echo everything from Jules et Jim to a Bob Dylan album cover.) Then along comes Exposition Man to engage David in a long and boring conversation that explains in great detail what thinking viewers have already been able to put together on their own. Crowe even flashes back to several key scenes and has the characters explain them again, like sportscasters recapping the highlights of a baseball game. It's poor filmmaking and, even worse, a brazen display of contempt for the audience. Then there's the matter of the ending, which turns out to be precisely the kind of sappy finale European filmmakers are so good at avoiding and that Hollywood directors can't seem to resist. Crowe has a history of blowing perfectly good movies by pushing too hard for that happy ending (remember Jerry Maguire?), but this one is particularly wrongheaded.
What makes the failure of Vanilla Sky all the more unfortunate is that the movie could have worked. Considering the talent involved with the film and the source material they were adapting, this might have been one of the few American remakes to actually improve on its foreign counterpart. When it comes to adult drama, it seems Hollywood is still out of touch with the real world.