I set down to watch a new movie on Amazon Prime the other day with the Wife.
We only made it about 15 minutes into the movie before she says “I’m bored. Next film.” I know why she said it because she said as much when we watched the trailer. “I get a real Vanilla Sky feel from this one. I doubt I’ll like it.” So we stopped watching the movie and we turned instead to watching another movie we’d skipped over a dozen times or more by this point.
What that movie was really isn’t relevant to this article. This article is about the journey I went on when she got up and went to bed, and I turned back to Bliss in order to see if it really was anything like Vanilla Sky. When I finished the movie I was pretty sure that “like Vanilla Sky” wasn’t far off the mark as far as judgment calls go. But I had to be sure, and that started the real journey.
This article contains detailed spoilers. You have been warned.
I have known for some time that the Tom Cruise film:
Vanilla Sky (2001)
…was based on a Spanish film of another name that also featured Penelope Cruz as the female lead. I had never taken the time to watch that version of the movie, or to even look up the title of it. I did a brief search and discovered that:
Open You Eyes (1999)
…was also available for free on Amazon Prime, and so I set out on a marathon of movie watching in order to appreciate where Vanilla Sky came from, and then to rewatch the Americanized version of the Spanish film.
Both movies are about the same length and they both covered essentially the same ground with the lovely Penelope playing the leading lady against two handsome men in their prime. I can’t honestly say that an English speaker will get much out of watching Open Your Eyes other than to be a completionist about subjects like I tend to be.
The Hollywood version changes almost nothing about the story. What it does do is try to cushion the harsher points of the story as presented in Open Your Eyes, while at the same time possibly being more sexual in a descriptive sense than the Spanish movie is. The one real reason to watch Open Your Eyes? Both of Penelope Cruz’s breasts are on display at the same time. Cheap thrills for the younger male set. On the other hand you can hear a graphic description of a blow job in the American version, right before Cameron Diaz’s character drives her car off a bridge killing herself and setting the chain of events in motion that make the three movies I’ve mentioned so far so similar from a story-telling perspective.
What occurs after the car crash in both versions of the Vanilla Sky story is open to question. There are dream sequences interspersed with what we are supposed to believe are real sequences from the lives of the main characters. These scenes are purposefully edited in such a way as to keep the audience confused on the subject of what is real and what is dream as the movie progresses slowly towards the third act.
As the dream/real separation begins to shatter, the audience realizes that everything occurring onscreen is a dream. This is the part where the Wife says “Mindfuck” and walks out of these kinds of movies. From a philosophical perspective, this is where the movies get interesting to me. How we treat the imaginary people around us says every bit as much about us as real people, possibly saying even more than what you will do when you know you are being watched.
This is a lot like the concepts behind Westworld (philosophical treatment) If the characters are robots or even figments of your imagination, and they can’t feel or remember, then why not treat them like artifacts placed there for your pleasure? Rape them, kill them, it doesn’t matter. Or does it? The actions color the actor, not just the victim. Both are changed by the behavior.
The conditions that set our protagonist on the course that lead him to be dream-confined in a psych ward under an accusation of murder are important. The fact that he kills himself just to live on in a dream, a dream that will be provided by the service that he has signed up for, colors his own understanding of himself in that place. He is a killer. He killed himself even though he can’t remember his actions on that day. However, there is some part of the subconscious that does know and won’t let him forget. It torments him and leads him to punish himself and the people around him until he finally realizes that his tormentor is himself and not the people who populate his dreams.
This is the part that the American version of the film does better, looking backwards from 20 years in the future. The male lead (who has different names in both films) calls for “tech support” as he frantically and almost comically tries to escape the dream at the end of the film. The final plunge off the side of the building is explained as his last wish, his exit strategy, confronting the life-long fear of heights, a point that the Spanish version never tries to explain. He treats the figments of his dream as people, and they maintain their individual drives through to the end. He has become fully human, possibly for the first time in his life, and he is ready to face the future of one hundred and fifty years after his death as he emerges from his long dream back into the real world. A real world that we as an audience only see as the violet-tinted iris of one of Tom Cruise’s eyes as the title of the Spanish film (and the first spoken line of Vanilla Sky itself) repeats “open your eyes” before the film cuts to the end credits.
Contrasting the story in Bliss with these two films is to almost do one of the stories an injustice. It’s hard to say which one, though. Bliss never really stakes a claim as to which reality is reality. There are definitely two different realities at play in the movie, but neither of them seems complete and both of them contain facets that have to be fake in order for them to exist at all. You begin to wonder towards the end of the story whether the character of Greg hasn’t been brain damaged in some way by the experiments that he has undergone. It is the only simple explanation that satisfies all the requirements of the story.
I have seen these kinds of stories told so many different ways over the years that I am beginning to think that the average person must believe that they deserve to be locked in the nightmare. They aren’t good enough to be that happy, so the happiness is undeserved. Bliss’ protagonist (Greg, played by Owen Wilson, the reason I thought the Wife would enjoy the movie. I was there for Salma Hayek) embraces the nightmare as the movie ends, because the nightmare offers him real love and belonging. The world of comfort and beauty that we are supposed to believe is the real world only offers him mindless entertainment.
There is a undercurrent of self-loathing that permeates all of these kinds of stories. Not just the three stories and four movies (and a currently running TV series in Westworld) I’ve mentioned so far in this article, but also in other movies like The Butterfly Effect.
Yes, The Butterfly Effect, whose director wanted to tell a story of ultimate self loathing; in which he has the protagonist erase himself from existence by strangling himself in his mother’s womb. Luckily the Hollywood elite shot down his self-destroying ending and substituted the now-infamous Hollywood ending for his suicide-inducing one. Either the guy really does hate himself or he hates time travel stories and wants all of them to stop before they start. In any case the Hollywood ending is better than the director’s cut for The Butterfly Effect, and that fact alone has convinced me that not everything Hollywood does is bad.
The self-loathing manifests in the choices made by the protagonists in these stories. Choosing the nightmare because that is what you deserve. Punishing yourself because you can’t possibly be that happy and be a good person. All of these stories demand that the viewer ask themselves “Why am I happy where I am?” and “What is happiness?” Whether you are comfortable entertaining those kinds of question for yourself is likely to determine whether you will like these kinds of movies or not. As a consequence of this, your mileage may vary from mine. I found them all enjoyable, if slightly predictable, on rewatching.
The predictability may be the most damning fact about these kinds of stories. Once you know the trick, it’s hard to get enjoyment from a story that you know is based on sleight of hand that you already recognize. I’ve only seen Vanilla Sky a few times. Will I rewatch Bliss now knowing what it is about? I doubt it.
Mortality as home entertainment? This can not be the future, can it? Can it?McCabe