The remake conundrum: Open Your Eyes and Vanilla Sky

09 Nov

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.

Cruz and Noriega, Open Your Eyes

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.

Cruz and Cruise, Vanilla Sky

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.


Posted by on 9 November, 2011 in Misc.


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13 responses to “The remake conundrum: Open Your Eyes and Vanilla Sky

  1. Dave

    9 November, 2011 at 15:44

    Great piece. You hit home the problems with remakes. I believe it was Gene Siskel who said, “If you are going to do a remake, then remake a bad movie.” This way, you can improve upon the original. But the problem isn’t that Open Your Eyes is a very good movie, but that Vanilla Sky is also a very good movie. What happens when a good movie begets another good movie? It’s a rarity – something like this almost never happens. I think it bothers you because it’s unprecedented. What are you supposed to feel? How do you rank them? How do you tell them apart from an emotional standpoint? I loved both films equally, though, and like you outlined above, both have different strengths and weaknesses.

    This kind of makes me think of movies that are faithfully adapted from novels. If you read the book first, that sense of discovery is lost as you view the film. 9 times out of 10 the book is better, but what about that rare time when the book is just as good as the movie? I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, but what comes to mind is The Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s one of my favorite novels of the decade, and the movie is very, very faithful to it. I loved the movie, but it’s not all that great despite the plot and character arcs being beat for beat the same. Did I love the movie *because* of the book? Can I escape from the magic of that story, no matter what form it’s in?

    That makes me wonder – what if Vanilla Sky was a bad film and then you went to see Open Your Eyes – do you think you would have liked it? Will your feelings for the original source (your original source, not the actual one) carry over to all subsequent forms, impairing your judgement on the new experience?

    • Emil

      9 November, 2011 at 16:42

      Thank you!

      The fact that it’s unprecedented, as you say, might well be what has thrown me off here. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other time where I’ve seen the remake first only to like the original almost as much. Or the opposite, for that matter. Remakes tend to try for a different approach in various ways, often to streamline it for an American audience since most modern remakes are off foreign films. In those cases, it’s easier to pick a side. You appreciate one approach more than the other. The problem here is that both films are so similar. Open your Eyes flirts with a style I’m familiar with in American cinema, while Vanilla Sky’s characters somehow feel a bit European. The two films both meet up somewhere in the Atlantic, equally close to home, equally close to one another.

      The thought of book-to-film adaptations crossed my mind as I was typing up this post. I’ve read a number of novels that have had movies based on them, and they come in all kinds. Mostly when I read the book first, I won’t like the movie as much. Less Than Zero and Tai-Pan, for instance, are films I suspect I’m being harder on than I should merely because they fail to live up to their novels. I can only think of one occasion where I read the novel first and still preferred the film, and that’s The Lord of the Rings (I appreciate everything Tolkien did for the fantasy genre, but the books are quite dull at times). When I’ve seen the film first, it tends to be 50-50 whether I like the book better or not.

      Of course, book-to-film adaptations often take even greater liberties with the source material than remakes do. Which is fine, since they’re different mediums with different strengths. Motivations and thoughts can be more easily explored in written form, whereas film have great capabilities for bringing a world and its characters to life in a more tangible way. Even when a film stays faithful to the story of the book it’s based on, there’s still room for highlighting different aspects. The Road is a recent example. I saw the film first and was really impressed with the bleak post-apocalyptic atmosphere and environments. Then I read the novel and found the same bleakness jumping out at me from every page (Cormac McCarthy’s great use of the English language helps). Another case, and arguably my favorite adaptation job ever, is High Fidelity. The stories remain the same in both film and book, and yet they both have their own identity. The book is set in London and feels English. The movie is set in Chicago and feels American. And yet they’re the same stories with the same characters, only with different emphasis. And both are brilliant, but I can live with this because they’re in different mediums. They’re not meant to compete with one another. Neither is Open Your Eyes and Vanilla Sky, I suppose, but they lend themselves much easier to comparison since they’re two of a kind.

      Christ, I have no idea what I’d make of Open Your Eyes had Vanilla Sky been crap. I’d like to think I would have liked it regardless, but I can’t say for sure. That would probably have been a different kind of unprecedented scenario, as I can’t think of any time where I’ve seen a crap remake first only to later watch the original. As I said, nowadays I always try to see the original first. The times where I’ve seen the remake first and didn’t like it, I haven’t tracked down the first film at all. This is probably something I should experiment with at some point.

  2. Movies - Noir

    10 November, 2011 at 01:30

    This is an interesting point you make, but one I have a different opinion on. The thing is, I also saw Vanilla Sky first. I must admit I didn’t like it much. The reason ? Probably because I saw it under bad circumstances, with friends.

    However, many years later, last year, I decided to watch the original, Open Your Eyes. Not remembering much from the original, it was like watching a new movie (which obviously was a good thing). After watching it, I came to the conclusion the original is superior. But I’d need to re-watch Vanilla Sky again to really confirm this.

    There are a couple of things that makes me reluctant in wanting to watch Vanilla Sky again. One is Tom Cruise, an actor I’ve learned to like the last couple of years. I just don’t know if I want to see him in that role again, he feels too dominant in the role. Another reason is Penelope Cruz. I dislike her, always have. But the thing is, in Open Your Eyes, I thought she was perfect. Probably because she wasn’t known and felt more natural. With Vanilla Sky she became a known star in Hollywood and I started to dislike her. I know, it sounds silly, but it’s true.

    And the main reason is since I watched Open Your Eyes not long ago and liked it, I don’t want to spoil it by watching the same story again, I see no reason. However, in a couple of years I might feel differently, who knows.

    My thoughts on Open Your Eyes.

    And if you haven’t seen Tesis (1996), check it out. I enjoyed it more than Open Your Eyes, and it’s the same director.

  3. Emil

    10 November, 2011 at 10:20

    Interesting thoughts, MN. Tesis is definitely on my watch list, along with everything else Amenábar has done. I’ve seen two films by him now (Open Your Eyes and The Others) and I thought both were great. I’m definitely checking out more of his work.

    Has a similar thing ever happened to you, though? I mean, seeing a remake and an original in that order and really liking both?

    • Movies - Noir

      10 November, 2011 at 14:46

      That’s a good question. I need to think about that because I can’t think of any at the moment, but I’m sure there is. Let me get back to you if I come to think of anything.

      • Movies - Noir

        10 November, 2011 at 15:29

        Ok, I had to check out the remakes I’ve seen and the best example might be one of these.

        I first saw the remake Scarface (1983) and then the original Scarface (1932). It’s of course almost impossible to compare the two because of the age difference, but both are very good in different ways. However, Scarface (1983) is still better and I saw it first. But those two are probably the best original-remake combination I’ve seen.

        The other example is Cape Fear. However, I’m not sure which I saw first actually, can’t remember. But I feel they are pretty equal, both having positives and negatives. But again, not sure if I saw the remake first or not, either way both versions are good.

        Interestingly enough, both the original and remake is english language. Rarely the American remake of a foreign language movie is better (but I do feel The Ring and The Departed are better than the original, where I saw The Ring before the original while I saw the original before The Depared).

        I’m against remakes for the most part. The best reason to put out a remake is 1) the original isn’t very known, 2) the original isn’t good enough and 3) which might be the most important part, the original story must have potential even if the original movie wasn’t good enough.

        I don’t know if you saw my post about remakes a couple of months ago, but I put together a list of lesser known movies that deserve a remake.

        • Emil

          10 November, 2011 at 16:47

          Alright, so there have been a few at least. I can only really comment on Cape Fear as it’s the only one of them where I’ve seen both films. I saw the remake first myself and like it better than the original, even if I think Mitchum makes for a better Max Cady than De Niro.

          I don’t have anything against remakes on principle. A lot of them are unnecessary and I’d prefer if great directors spend their time on making new films instead, but they can still be good films in their own right. As you said, there are occasions where they’re more warranted than others.

          I did see that post of yours earlier. As I said then, I haven’t seen any of the movies you mentioned in it, unfortunately. At least not yet.

          • Movies - Noir

            10 November, 2011 at 17:01

            Well, the reason that you (and many others) haven’t seen many of the movies on the list is because those movies aren’t good enough to NOT warrant a remake ;) There are several other unknown movies that could me remade, but I feel they’re good enough and don’t need a remake. There’s a difference as I see it…

  4. movieguyjon

    13 November, 2011 at 07:44

    This conundrum happened to me with Quarantine and Rec. Saw the remake first and then eventually gave the original a shot because I liked the remake a lot. Turns out they’re pretty much shot for shot the same with only minor differences separating them. For example, the reporter in Rec turned into a blubbering mess when the “baddies” appeared whereas the reporter in Quarantine had a bit stronger disposition (she’s the actress who plays Dexter’s sister in the TV show).

    I used to think that remakes that stayed similar to the source were unnecessary, but over time I’ve changed my tune. Remakes certainly spawn some interesting discussions! :)

    • Emil

      13 November, 2011 at 09:51

      I’ve only seen Rec of the two (liked it, didn’t love it), but it seems that many people who saw and liked Rec first dislike Quarantine. I’ve seen plenty of forum posts where people go “Ugh, no, don’t watch Quarantine, Rec is SO much better”. So it’s interesting that they might be very similar. I don’t really have any desire to watch Quarantine myself.

      They can spawn interesting discussions, aye. But I’d say that the more they change, the more there is to discuss.

      • movieguyjon

        13 November, 2011 at 19:18

        I’ve read a lot of the same form posts, reviews and comments that crap on Quarantine and for the life of me don’t understand why. Rec isn’t THAT much better that it should be revered or anything. It’s a solid horror flick and the remake is just as solid. Like I said earlier, the casting in Quarantine was interesting and there were one or two moments that were done slightly better. I think I might have had more reverence for the original if I had seen it first. As to the last statement, I think Psycho and it’s remake provide an interesting discussion considering it’s a shot-for-shot remake that doesn’t necessarily work. You would think if you completely copied something it would retain the same quality of the original.

        • Emil

          14 November, 2011 at 10:54

          Well, Psycho is a bit of an anomaly as far as I can tell (haven’t seen it), since it’s so very close to the original. Shot-by-shot remakes are extremely rare. But yes, that would make for good discussion. The more similarities there are, the more striking the differences become.

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