This Is a Revolution Of The Mind
If I had a magic wand that would allow me to change the reputation of a single movie, I would choose Vanilla Sky. It is not a perfect film, and like many of the films I was obsessed with from the early 2000’s, it seems slightly dated and a little awkward in a way I can’t quite put my finger on.
But I still believe this to easily be the most underrated film of the last decade. This is a movie that articulates how we live today. How our minds are colonized by a million disparate strands of pop culture. We are both subjected to it and we do it voluntarily. Bombard our minds to an endless barrage of sound and image, concept and word, and never once think about what it’s doing up there once we get past the initial sensation. We humans are codified creatures and each and every day we take in enough code to damn near overload our circuits.
Vanilla Sky is the only movie I know of that documents that phenomenon, or is even seems aware that it is happening. Which pinpoints the moment when an abstract concept like “Father” becomes Gregory Peck, where “Love” becomes Freewheeling and “Infatuation” Jeanne Moreau. It never gets the credit for it.
The film confirms Cameron Crowe as one of the great contrasters of sound and image. Again and again he finds the perfect song to counterpoint his sequences for maximum impact, a murder set to Todd Rundgren, a meltdown to Good Vibrations. I mean the film opens with Audrey Hepburn dancing to Kid A. Seriously just how perfect is that? Crowe’s playing a key here that I don’t think we’ve ever seen him do before and is doubtful we’ll ever see again. Aggressive, at times downright abrasive the film has one of the sharpest visual imaginations of any film released in the decade. It keeps a steady stream of surreal imagery; hologram Miles Davis, Homer Simpson peering voyeuristically into Cruise’s apartment window, Cruise stumbling drunken through a club Janus Faced, the dizzying final plunge, that keeps you genuinely off kilter. The film starts with its justly famous Times Square sequence. Tom Cruise in Time Square, one of the world’s most famous people, in the world’s most populist places entirely alone except for the sound and image of the wall screens. It’s a disconcerting image to say the least.
And at the center of it is Tom Cruise. What to say about him in the movie? If I put together a video of every bizarre physical and vocal tics that Cruise runs through in this film out of context, it would run ten hours. I’m not sure how it would work, it just would. It is in some ways a different performance to watch now then the one Cruise actually gave ten years ago. Before these tics signified the tricks and charms that Cruise, an actor of genuine if limited talent, always used to get by. At the opposite end of the decade, with oh so much baggage and a distinct dimming of star power in between these two points, they now seem a bizarre form of Thetan mugging. Part of Cruise’s appeal was that he always seemed apart somehow. The difference is that it used to be charming and now it’s creepy.
So perhaps it’s worth taking a closer look then a Cruise performance generally warrants. This is the last time that Cruise could play a “Master of the universe” type without baggage. And it’s interesting to see just what he does with it. For one thing it is perhaps the apex of the masochistic streak that caused Cruise to deform his face or at least wear a grotesque mask in just about every film he appeared in. He does both here to great affect and it’s here that Crowe makes the nonlinear structure of the film more then just a gimmick. Taking a smash cut from Cruise coasting through a life of privilege to him in a darkened cell shrieking “THERE WAS NO MURDER” while wearing a latex gimp mask is startling to say the least. It has always been an odd fact about Cruise that the uglier a character he plays, either morally or physically, the better he is. And when he’s desperately abusing his doctors (“Go ahead play Jazz”) or drunkenly lurching across the club floor, a despondent lump of rage and self pity he’s entirely convincing. It is only when he plays David Aames as man of privilege and ease that his performance seems brittle and mask like.
But despite the mileage it gets from Cruise’s star power, not to mention the performances of Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz as obscure objects of desire, (as well as solid performances from Jason Lee, Noah Taylor, Timothy Spall, Tilda Swinton, Kurt Russell and a blink and you'll miss him appearance by Michael Shannon) Vanilla Sky is still primarily a film of ideas rather then people (Though Crowe ever the humanist never lets the former completely overwhelm the latter). It’s the sci fi elements that seem to cause a lot of people to keep connecting with the film. In all fairness this particular pump was primed with me from The Evangelion finale and plenty of Phillip K. Dick. With whom Vanilla Sky shares a feeling of indignation (“Mortality as Entertainment!?!?”) and absurdity.
Really though the sci fi element is just a macguffin, albeit one the film spends an awful lot of time on. The idea at the core of Vanilla Sky, how our imaginations have been colonized and to a certain extent cannibalized by pop culture, and how lethal strains of guilt, anger, and regret are too powerful for something so simple to repress.
I can’t accept that any film that features a sequence as discordant as Cruise’s Meltdown set to Good Vibrations is anything less then a great movie. And when Cruise starts shrieking “Tech Support” at the top of his lungs to a mind that has turned on him, I can’t help but feel a shudder of something that feels dangerously close to recognition.