David Ames is being roused by his alarm clock. “Open your eyes,” it breathes, signaling that it’s time to wake up. He heads to the mirror to pluck a single grey hair from his head, a minute signifier of change in his otherwise lavish life as the rich-kid playboy who inherited his father’s publishing empire. When he heads to work in his black Ferrari, the lights at each intersection turn green as if they’re yielding specifically for him. But something feels off: there’s no one around, and Times Square, the most populated area in New York City, is cold and empty. Then the alarm clock breathes again. “Open your eyes,” it says, and David is brought back to reality.
This switch between a dream and real-life is the opening scene to Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky—a film that deviates between nightmare, fantasy, and delusion, and is largely understood to take place in a lucid dream state. Featuring Tom Cruise as David Ames, Cameron Diaz as his frustrated “fuck buddy” Julianna Gianni, and Penélope Cruz as Sofia Serrano, it is the 2002 English-language adaptation of Alejandro Amenábar's Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes). And it’s also (if we hadn’t already written about Adventureland or The Beach) my favourite soundtrack.
Wah, wah, wah—is this not an obvious choice, I hear you ask. Well, yes (the soundtrack includes R.E.M, The Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan, among others). But also sometimes the most obvious things in life are the best, and only blinded contrarians choose not to like things that are good. Anyway, besides my own penchant for hearing iconic tunes blasted through the multi-million pound speaker system of the cinema, the Vanilla Sky soundtrack is a crucial, much-loved listen because it captures the central tenets of the film—of life never being “as sweet without the sour,” and the idea that reality can be recreated “with the romantic abandon of a summer day… or a pop song you always loved”—in an exhilarating wide-screen affection that punctures each and every time.
For those born without even the slightest desire to see a film featuring Tom Cruise, Vanilla Sky’s plot is as follows. The ostentatiously moneyed David Ames has been sleeping with Julianna Gianni, seemingly with as little care for her as the fine art he’s inherited (a Monet painting with a “vanilla sky” hangs in his bedroom; the pieces of some iconic rockstar’s broken guitar are encased in lucite in the lobby). Meanwhile, the fatalistic Julianna cares for David (“What is happiness? For me, it’s being with you”), and after discovering he’s developing feelings for Sofia, Julianna—with David in the car—accelerates as fast as possible off a Manhattan bridge, attempting to kill them both. So far, so suicidal romance movie. But David survives the crash: his face is a mess (remember that Kanye West lyric, after his car wreck that inspired “Through The Wire”, about looking “like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky”), and, from that point on, the film shifts gear into a sci-fi-psychological-thriller.
If the most commonly accepted narrative is to be believed, the majority of Vanilla Sky, post-crash, takes place in a lucid dream. To cut a long story short: David employs a company called LE—an acronym for life extension—to cryogenically freeze his body, while keeping his brain active in a lucid state. Because Vanilla Sky is a science-fiction film, and because the idea, presumably, seemed fucking cool, LE’s sales pitch is this: At the point of being frozen, “your life will continue as a realistic work of art, painted by you, minute-to-minute. And you'll live it with the romantic abandon of a summer day… with the feeling of a great movie, or a pop song you always loved. With no memory of how [the death] occurred, save for the knowledge that everything simply… improved.” And so, in the latter two-thirds of Vanilla Sky, we live in David’s dream—a place where the sky is painted pink-and-blue or a walk-down the street with Sofia resembles a favorite album (in this case, Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’).
“What is any life, if not the pursuit of a dream,” says LE’s representative, played by Tilda Swinton. And she’s right. Except in Vanilla Sky there starts to become a distinct and unique sadness about the dream that David is chasing. It’s not real, it’s made up from work created by other people. At times it feels too perfect, like those Monet paintings; at others it’s monstrous, blurred with confusion and fear. This dichotomy is accurately captured by the soundtrack, switching between U2’s delicate and heartfelt “Wild Honey” as David and Sofia fall deeper in love in their lucid dream, and moving into the twitching headfuck of Radiohead’s “I Might Be Wrong” as the Life Extension project starts to glitch and David begins to experience wild delusions.
Dreams aren’t just part of David’s narrative either, they’re a core theme for each character in Vanilla Sky. For example: Julianna intensely desires to be with David, while Sofia wishes his face wasn’t so fucked up and tells him they’ll “meet in another life when we’re both cats.” Meanwhile Brian—David’s best friend—wishes he knew what it felt like to not be the guy who goes home alone at the end of the night, to be able to casually sleep with Julianna while also falling in love with Sofia. And these urges are brought to life with the film’s constantly shifting catalogue of tunes—reviewed, at the time, by the New York Times as a “rich musical stew that recalls the Beatles’ White Album.”
Take the ethereal, otherworldly-ness of the film’s opening sequence—which is captured with Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place”—as proof of how music elevates the tone of every scene, or the woozy, drugged-up victory call of Joan Osborne’s “One Of Us” as David is wheeled into surgery. At every narrative turn, there’s a maudlin awareness that dreaming about someone else, living in a dream, or using art to replicate life is false. By the end of the film, and with an awareness he’s living in the Life Extension project, David decides that he wants “to live a real life”, and doesn’t “want to dream forever." Instead it’s the moments around these dreams—“the sweet and the sour” of each experience, as Brian describes it—that make life the full-blown experience that it is.
This division between the good and the bad is perhaps best depicted in a scene near the beginning of the film, when David first meets Sofia and Julianna looks on with jealousy in the background. “I think she’s the saddest girl to ever hold a martini,” Sofia says, describing Julianna. This is my favourite line in any film, ever. Sure, there are other great quotables from other great films (lines proffered up from the skewered minds of Harmony Korine and Martin Scorsese, or sequences acted out by some of Hollywood’s best actors and actresses), but I love this line in particular because it combines with the mise en scene to create something so natural yet cutting, it feels as though you’re David, falling in love with Sofia, as much as you’re also Julianna and able to feel the wetness of tears silently rolling down her cheek underneath the utterly useless guise of a smile.
And it’s from this moment on, backed up by the soundtrack, that Vanilla Sky achieves its purpose: a film that brings to light the things we don’t always understand, and does so by packaging everything up with songs by Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Sigur Ros, Spiritualized, and a whole load more. That’s more than can be said for the latest Marvel film that’s just hit Odeon. Of course, given the content of Vanilla Sky—lucid dreaming; a non-linear storyline; nothing like Crowe’s arguably most accessible piece of work, Almost Famous—the film is divisive among audiences and critics. The legendary Roger Ebert gave Vanilla Sky three out of four stars, but the layer-upon-layers of plot tended to aggressively confuse people. That said, perhaps that was the film’s intention: to resemble something as complicated as real life. And so, Rotten Tomatoes and it’s 41 percent score of the film can do one. I love Vanilla Sky, and its soundtrack is a rocket of emotion that’s enough to last several lifetimes, whether those play out in dreams or not.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.