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"What is happiness to you?": Vanilla Sky (2001) Film Analysis

Updated on October 26, 2010
"Open your eyes, David..."
"Open your eyes, David..."

The subconscious is a powerful thing...

Is life, as you believe it to be, nothing more than a dream? Is there any true difference between the 'waking' state and the 'dream' state? Can achieving these often 'society-born' dreams lead to true happiness?

Starring Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz, 'Vanilla Sky', a 2001 Cameron Crowe helmed remake of a 1997 Spanish film, 'Abrelos Ojos' ('Open Your Eyes' in English) which also starred Cruz, lets audiences decipher answers to those questions. While there are concepts that reside in science fiction territory, such as lucid dreaming and cryogenic freezing, the film also possesses underlying philosophical ideologies surrounding self, love and male vanity. By exploring and understanding their importance in the story, 'Vanilla Sky' proves a very genre - and mind - bending film that leaves you deep in thought long after its ending.

First, let's explore the storyline in a bare bones fashion. David Aames (Tom Cruise), a wealthy CEO of a publishing company, is involved in a horrid car accident with a former lover that changes his life forever and makes him question everyone, and everything, around him (click here for the entire story told in chronological order).

"it's only a mask if you treat it that way..."

Everything that occurs after the accident is not real, but in actuality, a lucid dream that David himself set-up through a business called Life Extension. Due to the accident and residual physical and psychological effects, he has chosen to be cryogenically frozen. Instead, David's 'life' is continued through the Lucid Dream program from LE. While he handpicks the different areas of life to reflect his inner desires (dream, love, friendship, work, play), an unfortunate caveat exists involving the potential for his subconscious to inadvertanely alter perception and turn his dream into a nightmare (hate).

Prior to the accident, David is, what many would view as, 'living the dream'. He is the epitome of true success: handsome, wealthy, carefree, social, lovable, and most of all, happy. David's happiness is driven by all of these traits being tightly strung together and working simultaneously with one another. While he doesn't possess the type of control over his company (holding a 51% stake versus 49% by board members, or 'the seven dwarfs' as he calls them), David doesn't put much emphasis into his career. Instead, he finds comfort in retaining the benefits, such as wealth, large party gatherings of friends and acquaintences as well as a variety of women at his calling.

After the accident, David's world resembles more of a nightmare. With his emotional and psychological state mirroring his physical imperfections, David exhibits feelings of loss, guilt, shame and regret. By allowing these deeply imbedded, often times negative, thoughts to enter and consume his mind, he has in essence become an 'ugly' person inside. As a result, David's perception is reflective of the physical environment around him. He has lost the dream-like ability to function in a leadership role at his publishing company, have a potential life with Sofia, as well as possess a close friendship with Brian. Now, as David tells LE Tech Support, he "wants to live a real life" and "doesn't want to dream any longer."

David's downward spiral also shows the shallow nature of male vanity. In the opening sequence, David is shown examining himself in the bathroom mirror. He places major importance on his physical appearance, which in turn drives his outward character. When he becomes disfigured, David cannot come to terms and loses the positive inner traits he formerly had. In several scenes, both Brian and Sofia tell him that "they miss the old David," a telling message to David that beauty is more than skin deep. Brian also tells him "the sweet is never as sweet without the sour." David discovers the truth behind that statement when his ultimate goal of fixing his disfiguration (the sour) gives him a hope in returning to his former 'life' and win Sofia back (the sweet). It is this false delusion that harms David because, in actuality, Sofia will accept him for who he is, not just for how he looks.

"I wanna wake up!"

Studies with nightmare sufferers have shown it is beneficial to be fully aware when one is actually dreaming. Australian psychologist Milan Colic utilized a special therapy with clients while in a lucid dreaming state to curb the impact of not only nightmares during sleep, but also depression and other issues in waking life.

Once David is made cognitively aware by Tech Support that his experiences have been manufactured as part of a lucid dream, a sense of calmness and peace comes over him. Even though he is now self-aware of his existence in the dream state, the visions he manifested for himself out of his own subconscious needs, David has a difficult time letting go of Sofia (a reflection of a love he desires), Dr. McCabe (a fatherly figure he missed in his childhood), and Brian (a valued friendship). The dream-like quality of those relationships were based off books, films, vinyl record art...things he found that depicted important foundations for the life he wished to live. However, now wishing to escape, David must overcome his attachments and fear of heights in order to 'wake up' from the lucid dream...eventually, he does.

'Vanilla Sky' is both art and articulate. Director Cameron Crowe's previous films ('Almost Famous', 'Jerry Maguire') hold a direct moral story. To me, 'Vanilla Sky' also holds an identical moral tale that hides in an obscure blender of psychological science fiction and modern day romance. Crowe is unforgiving in the underlying depiction of human hunger and need for love, for dreams, for success, for friendship, for sex, for work and for play. The end result shows us the 'nightmare' that comes from the inability to satisfy this hunger. These needs must fit in a tight, almost always unattainable, 'box': shallow outer beauty mixed with wealth to achieve love. Today, people are inundated with advertisements depicting how we should strive to look, act, and how that affects others perception of us. While these shallow traits can produce happiness, and often do, Crowe also shows how fragile this 'happiness' is and how easily one failing aspect can affect the remaining parts (or in David's case, the whole person).

Perhaps the overall moral message is simply that this form of 'happiness' is not only just unattainable, but undesirable. It is a 'lucid dream'....a manufactured world created by advertisers to make us believe this is the true desire and goal of human beings. However, after reaching these goals, why are we still unhappy? So, what is happiness? The film argues that external beauty does not produce happiness. It's what's on the inside that truly counts.


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