Young, handsome and wealthy, publishing tycoon David Aames (Cruise) can have anything his heart desires. Still, David's charmed life seems incomplete. One night, David meets the woman of his dreams (Penelope Cruz) and believes he may have found the missing piece. But a fateful encounter with a jealous lover (Cameron Diaz) suddenly sends David's world out of control, rocketing him on a roller-coaster ride of romance, sex, suspicion and dreams... to a shocking, final awakening you will never forget.
When it comes to 'Vanilla Sky,' most people seem pretty impartial to it. It didn't do anything for them and they don't care about it either way. There's a small group, however, that seems to hate it and absolutely despise it for everything it is. And then there's another small group like me - those that love it. It's one of my all-time favorite films, so it's my intent to explain that love to you in this review. My hope is that you'll see it in another light. With the Blu-ray being priced as low as it is (currently around the $8 and $9 range), I hope you'll find it worthwhile.
'Vanilla Sky' is a film that's hard to talk about without spoiling anything. I have no idea how the folks at Paramount figured out how to market it, but they did and it grossed $200 million at the international box office back in 2001. Because of the difficulty of tiptoeing around the mysterious plot, I'm going to divulge more than I normally would in a review. I figure that you've already had 14 years to experience it on your own, so spoilers lie ahead.
When I think of 'Vanilla Sky,' the first thing to come to mind is the film's central morals: there are consequences to your actions; without making bad decisions, you'll never understand the value of the good decisions. Keep those in mind as we proceed.
Our central character is David Aames (Tom Cruise). David is a playboy who, in his own words, "snowboards through life" on the curtails of his father's wealth and success. In all that he does, he literally acts like an adult-size child. He's babysat at work, he's a selfish friend, and the one woman who truly wants to be with him is treated like nothing more than a toy. To put it bluntly, he's a dick. Typically, it wouldn't be any fun to watch a movie with a central character that fits this description. You wouldn't be able to connect with him and you wouldn't even like him. But what it all boils down to in 'Vanilla Sky' is that because he's a flawed person, once we see his potential, we need to see his story through. It's when he meets the beautiful Sofia (Penelope Cruz) that we realize that there's a glimmering possibility of hope for David. Sophia even comments on the fact that he's not in a good place, but that there's hope for him. It's necessary for us to see his downfalls in order to enjoy watching him change. Like his author friend Brian (Jason Lee) says in the film, "Without the sour, the sweet is never as sweet."
When David and Sophia first meet, they spend the whole evening together, entirely ignoring his birthday party and the many invited guests. They even sneak away at one point to go to her apartment, where they remain together until dawn. Surprisingly, they don't go there for sex, but to get to know one another. In classic Cameron Crowe fashion, it's a wonderful sequence that pulls you into the characters. It's chock full of Crowe's trademark witty dialog that you wish your mind could fluidly spout out on command.
Although David walks away from this magical night as a changed man who - for the first time - feels the burning desire to actually do good things with his life, he's still not quite the great man that he has the potential to be. When confronted (and even manipulated) by the heartbroken woman who wants to be more than just his "f**k buddy," Julie (Cameron Diaz), he caves. The old David immediately comes right back. You can see him wage an internal war, but he ultimately loses and gives in - and it costs him everything. Literally everything. The ramifications of his action will fatally destroy his life.
And this is where 'Vanilla Sky' starts to get weird. This is where it veers away from the movie that it seems to be in trailers – but there's a reason for that: what lies ahead is truly unpredictable.
While confronting him, Julie coaxes David into her car so they can head back to her apartment for more of their alluded-to "non-committal" wild sex. Vulnerably sitting in the passenger seat, David is put in the hot seat while Julie verbally attacks him about their relationship, leading to her blow-up and the unthinkable. After pouring out her heart and soul in a rant that delves into craziness, at 80 miles-per-hour, she veers the car off the side of a bridge and onto the concrete pavement and retaining wall below.
After seeing an example of the cruel dreams that fill David's mind, we catch up with him in the real world post-crash. The wreck killed Julie and destroyed the once-handsome David Aames. Broken bones and a crushed half of his body cause him to limp, one alarm dangling without much support and his face unrecognizably smashed and scarred. Although that one bad decision caused his life to crumble around him and left the visual scars to represent the emotional damage he suffers, David springs into life quietly from behind the curtain. He starts taking ownership of his responsibilities within his father's "kingdom." For the first time, David's heart is in the right place – but the question is: is it enough to keep his scarred past from damaging his bright future?
When he's finally confident enough to re-emerge into public, David goes down in an insecure ball of flames. Any progress that has been made is somewhat undone by his post-accident persona. His physical appearance has wounded his ego and confidence. He meets up with Sophia and Brian at a night club and this is where it becomes embarrassing. Paranoid that Sophia doesn't even like him anymore, David gets absolutely drunk and makes a complete fool of himself, not only embarrassing himself in the process, but offending Brian and Sofia too. He says hurtful, mean things that he never would have said in his past life, causing them to doubt his intentions and their feelings about him. It's because of this final fall from grace that David breaks. He walks away from the beautiful life that he got a little taste of.
It's impossible to talk about the second half of 'Vanilla Sky' in detail without revealing all of its cards. I warned you about spoilers and this is where they're going to come out.
After leaving the club, David passes out and spends the night on a sidewalk as a sad sappy mess. If you've not seen 'Vanilla Sky,' you'd not get this revelation until the end, but from the moment he wakes up on the sidewalk, the rest of the movie is David's "lucid dream." The film has been a science fiction piece disguised in a rom-com/thriller's clothes. Thanks to the magic of science, David is now able to live the life that he wish he had from that point on, the life that he might have had were it not for the consequences of getting in the car with Julie. Cameron Crowe's direction and writing before this point were great, but it's once we get into the lucid dream that it becomes brilliant. The subliminal fusion of iconic pop culture images into the film is amazing.
Like a body that rejects a transplanted organ, David's mind can't accept these unnaturally positive and happy times. This is what becomes known as "the revolution of the mind" that builds 'Vanilla Sky' up to it's climax. It's at this point that we start to understand the grand tale that's been laid out before us. Every plot point that I've described so far doesn't unfold in front of us; instead, we're walked through this story from David's own mouth in another intriguing (and strange) plot point of its own.
David has been arrested and accused of murder. To help open David's mind and get him to remember what happened, psychologist Dr. McCabe (Kurt Russell) has been assigned to the case. What I've explained about the story so far unfolds as David recounts his past. The David/McCabe moments sprinkled throughout create a puzzling shroud that keeps us on our toes, constantly wondering what exactly is happening. I won't spoil everything that unfolds because the final act is a powerful aesthetic experience of its own, but I'll speak to what it accomplishes.
Much like grand "experience" titles – like 'Interstellar' - 'Vanilla Sky' is one that makes you feel like you've been through the same journey as the main character, like you've been through this emotional trial with David Aames from beginning to end. It's during the big elevator and rooftop sequence reveals that both we, the audience, and David realize exactly what he's been through and what has brought him to this point. Upon learning this, we feel the hopeless heartbreak and despair that's caused it. It's not often that a film can simultaneously punch the audience and central character in the gut like this. For me, what drives the impact of these scenes is a combination of Crowe's wonderful writing, the acting, and the music chosen to accompany it. Between the acoustic guitar-driven score by Crowe's then-wife Nancy Wilson and the tracks by Freur, Spiritualized and Sigur Rós, it's absolutely perfect. I can only think of one other film whose ending is as impactful and moving ('Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind') as 'Vanilla Sky.' The story of the true fall of David Aames, the character interactions, the reveals, the script, the music and, of course, the visual of the "vanilla sky" collectively work to make this one of my all-time favorites.
There's something that I experienced while watching 'Vanilla Sky' for the first time, something that I have never had happen before. The moments the credits began rolling, I was stopped dead in my tracks. It was the first aesthetic experience I had ever had, so It moved me so deeply that it caused me to start evaluating my own life, looking for relationships that I was unintentionally taking advantage of and weighing the consequences of my actions. Less than a handful of films have had this effect on me ('Eternal Sunshine' and 'About Time,' to name a couple). It's my hope that you'll pick up this cheap Blu-ray, pop it in one evening when you can dedicate your undivided attention to it, and have the same life-changing experience that I had.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
It's been a long road to Blu-ray for 'Vanilla Sky.' Several release date changes have postponed it more than a year beyond its original release date - but now it's finally here! Warner Bros. has slapped this Paramount catalog title onto a Region A BD-50 disc and placed it into a single-disc blue Elite keepcase. The artwork has changed drastically from the original DVD release and is now made to look more like a warm romance flick. I've read many gripes online concerning the change, but I personally like it. When you pop the disc into your player, not a single thing plays before the static and silent main menu. When you click the "play," you'll be asked if you want to watch the theatrical cut or the alternate ending version.
'Vanilla Sky' has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, it's obvious that the release's many delays weren't because the restorer's wanted to put more love into the video quality. As-is, it will suffice, but it's certainly not as good as it should be.
The expected film grain is present, but there's a noticeable amount of softness and a very slight amount of noise throughout. I recall the film always having featured several sequences with somewhat soft focus. While those ones still appear that way, many more scenes at random throughout the film carry a similar quality. The differences can oddly switch from shot-to-shot. One may appear to have the sharp and detailed level that we expect from new Blu-rays, but the next shot within the exact same scene can lose its texture, detail and fine lines. There's no rhyme or reason to it; however, the good news it that the mildness becomes less and less frequent the deeper we get into the film.
Being a 14-year-old film, it's impressive how clean the video is. You won't find a single scratch, fiber, run, speck or instance of debris within it. In that way, it's ageless. No artificial sharpening tools have been used, nor has digital noise reduction. Artifacts, banding and aliasing are absent, but black levels waiver, occasionally dabbling into crushing. Colorization is good, but becomes great once we get into the lucid dream.
One thing to note: if you choose to watch the alternate ending version, the second it splices over to the new cut, we begin 30 full minutes of workprint quality video. Frankly, it looks awful - like a bootleg version of a movie captured with a camcorder during its theatrical release. Visually, it's not pleasant. If you watch the theatrical cut, you won't have this problem.
The original 5.1 audio mix of 'Vanilla Sky' has been given the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio treatment. If you're like me, then you have a default volume that you always turn your system up to. I watched 30 minutes of the movie like that and believed that the audio was simply front-heavy, but when I cranked it up another 25 percent, the surround sounds that previously appeared faint and in background jumped out. Suddenly, I could hear everything. I highly recommend doing the same.
As always, music is an integral part to Cameron Crowe's created cinematic experience and it sounds fantastic. From Radiohead and REM to Peter Gabriel and U2, it's awesome – but where it truly makes a difference is in the end of the film. Like I mentioned in my review, the perfectly place Freur, Nancy Wilson, Spiritualized and Sigur Rós tracks are really add to the movie's tone. With as much emphasis being given to the music, it's those four that are mixed with perfection. The music swells from all channels and matches/enhances the mood and emotion of the scenes. It's harmoniously balanced.
The vocal mixing is strong. When appropriate, dialog spouts out from different channels. It's always clear, well-leveled and never distorted. When David speaks from behind the mask, his voice carries a perfect muffled sound that matches his state-of-being. When lines are shouted from within the prison interrogation room, the environmental characteristics of voices bouncing off hard smooth surfaces are apparent. When the volume is turned up, you'll hear the environmental nature behind many of the film's scenes: street sounds, rumbly and bassy revving car engines, background banter, and more.
All of the following features were found on the original DVD release of 'Vanilla Sky.' The new features are all exclusive to the Blu-ray.
By this point, you've heard enough of my sentiments on the film, so I'm going to share with you Cameron Crowe's final words from the special feature "Prelude to a Dream." "'Vanilla Sky' isn't obvious. It's a movie to be watched closely, but it's also a movie that you can let wash over you. It's a story, a puzzle, a nightmare, a lucid dream, a psychedelic pop song, a movie to argue over, and – most of all – a movie that extends an invitation. Wherever you want to meet it, it will meet you there." I wholeheartedly agree with Crowe's words and urge you to give 'Vanilla Sky' another shot. The Blu-ray's video and audio qualities are far from perfect, but this is best that it has ever looked and is likely the best that it's ever going to look. Plenty of special features are included, several of which are exclusive to this new Blu-ray. Especially for the cheap cost of this disc, I recommend giving it a(nother) chance.