A few years ago, I watched Cameron Crowe‘s Vanilla Sky for the first time. It’s the favorite movie of a friend of mine, and he insisted I give it a go. So I did, and found it to be very much to my liking. It’s a very intriguing mystery of a film, dipping into various genres on its way to a surprising conclusion, all helped along by a number of great acting performances. Simply put, a really good watch.
At the time, I wasn’t aware that it was in fact a remake of the Spanish 1997 film Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos), directed by Alejandro Amenábar. Nowadays I generally try to watch the original first before seeing a remake. It seems more fair that way. The people involved with creating a movie from scratch deserve to have it seen by someone who knows nothing about the story, who experiences it the way they envisioned it. It also means that I’m able to recognize little nods and homages to it once I get around to seeing the remake. But this wasn’t how it turned out that time. The remake was seen first, and while I was interested in checking out the original, it never was very urgent for me.
Today I did finally see Open Your Eyes, and it was a really strange experience, not quite like anything I’ve been through before in my film-watching. The movie was good. Really good. Great, actually. It’s a very slick and engaging movie, bringing along many of the same qualities that Vanilla Sky did. I could find nothing to complain about.
But I had already seen it. Except then it was called Vanilla Sky.
I already knew all the twists and turns. I knew who the characters were, what they were like and what they were going to do. I knew what was going to happen in any given scene. Yes, the movie was great, but the sense of discovery wasn’t there. I couldn’t make heads or tails of which one was the better film. It was really baffling. A rewatch of Vanilla Sky seemed in order so I could make some sense of it all. So I saw the story unfold once more (and on a whim, I turned on the audio commentary with Crowe and Nancy Wilson, who composed the score for the film).
(Mild SPOILER ALERT: I’ll go into plot developments of both films to some degree in the next few paragraphs. If you haven’t seen at least one of the movies yet, proceed at your own risk.)
Watching the two films within a few hours of each other, it becomes apparent how close Crowe stuck to the Amenábar’s film when he did his own take on it. In the commentary, he says that he saw Open Your Eyes as a folk song that he wanted to play himself. And played it he did. There’s not a lot changed from the original. The story is the same, both in content and in the way it unfolds, although there are some minor differences in the third act. Some things are added or expanded upon throughout the film. For instance, the board of directors are only mentioned a few times in Open Your Eyes, whereas they’re given some actual screen time and more emphasis (and the “Seven Dwarves” moniker) in Vanilla Sky. This is a good move, as it makes the possibility of a conspiracy by them seem more real. The backstory on the protagonist’s father is also made a bigger deal of in the remake. All in all, Vanilla Sky runs around 15-20 minutes longer than Open Your Eyes does, with no resulting pacing issues. It’s not a better or worse story for this. There’s just more to it.
The lead part of fortunate son César/David is played by Eduardo Noriega in the original and Tom Cruise in the remake. In this area, Open Your Eyes draws the longest straw. Noriega makes the character less sympathetic for the first half of the film or so, clearly a bit of an asshole both before and after the car accident. There’s a selfish confidence lurking behind his eyes. César values the people around him but has no qualms whatsoever to steal the date of his best friend at the party. Cruise, on the other hand, lays on the charm a bit too thick. His encounter with Sofia seems more like a fated romantic meeting than an act of selfishness and entitlement. Since both films deal (to an extent) with moralism and redemption, having the protagonist unlikeable at the start is a plus. Noriega also gets more impressive make-up when his character gets disfigured in the auto accident. He seems almost monstrous. Cruise’s David also loses his handsome features, sure, but the scars aren’t as pronounced. He comes off more sad and pitiable. To Cruise’s credit, he does some great work when his character is hiding behind the mask, impressively coveying every emotion with his body language.
The supporting parts are where Vanilla Sky really shines. Cameron Diaz as spurned sex-buddy Julie Gianni is more memorable than her Spanish counterpart Najwa Nimri, adding more nuances and a better sense of going off the deep end. It’s among Diaz’ best performances. Likewise, Jason Lee as David’s best friend is equally impressive, showing his aptitude for both comedy and drama and outshining the original’s Fele Martínez. Penélope Cruz plays the Sofia part in both films but comes off better in Vanilla Sky. In Open Your Eyes, she’s as gorgeous and charming as ever, but seems somewhat more normal and down-to-earth among fellow Spanish-speakers. In the remake, her accent and features come off as more exotic and alluring. This makes sense for the story, as the privileged main character wouldn’t be interested in the mundane. César must have met other women like Sofia in his days. For David, I sense she’s one of a kind. The part of the psychiatrist is played equally well by both Chete Lera and Kurt Russell, however. Vanilla Sky also sprinkles its cast with a number of skilled actors in smaller parts, with Timothy Spall, Michael Shannon, Tilda Swinton and others all making appearances.
There are other smaller differences in tone. Open Your Eyes feels a little darker and more sinister at times, whereas Vanilla Sky isn’t afraid to insert some humor here and there (the cheesy “tech support” line during the climax isn’t in the original, for instance). Crowe’s love for music also shines through in his version (he shot it right after finishing Almost Famous), as it’s peppered by songs from R.E.M., Radiohead, Paul McCartney, U2 and others. Some grim scenes are juxtaposed with cheery pop songs, to varying degrees of effectiveness.
(No more spoilers ahead.)
But all these differences are minor. The main draw of both films is the story, watching it unfold, guessing where it’s going and looking for an interpretation of what’s really going on. In this, the two films are equal, so I should find them both equally good. And yet my experience is tinted by the fact that I saw the remake first. My first viewing of Vanilla Sky had the sense of discovery to it. Seeing Open Your Eyes later became a more calculating and analytical experience, with me trying to find where it’s different from Vanilla Sky. The original is a great movie. Of this I have no doubt. I like Vanilla Sky better, but I suspect a lot of that is because it was my first encounter with the plot the two share.
This seems very unfair. Amenábar and co-writer Mateo Gil had to come up with the twisting story themselves. Crowe took what they did and put his own flourishes to it. The people behind Open Your Eyes deserve more credit, and yet I prefer the cover version. Which is a shame because Vanilly Sky is, to put it bluntly, a great but unnecesssary film. There’s not enough things changed from the original to really warrant its existance. And yet it exists, and I like it better.
I’m not sure why this bothers me so much. What Crowe said about Open Your Eyes being a song he wanted to play comes to mind here, because there are a number of cover songs out there that I like better than the originals, and this has never been an issue for me. But with movies, I find the phenomenon troubling. Perhaps it’s just because I care more about film. I love it when I’m presented with a fresh and unique story where I can’t tell how it’s going to play out from scene to scene (one of the reasons I’m so fond of Charlie Kaufman‘s screenplays, for instance). In a time where many plots feel recycled and familiar, originality deserves all the credit in the world.
I wish I had seen Open Your Eyes first. I want to know if I’d prefer it to the remake if I had. But this willl never happen. What I’m left with are two great movies that now cause me uneasy contemplation.