Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My alternative canon #7: Vanilla Sky

with 5 comments

Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

I’ve always been an unabashed Tom Cruise fan, less for the actor than for the world’s finest producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star, and after Edge of Tomorrow and the last two Mission: Impossible films, there are signs that the overall culture is coming around to the realization that he’s simply the most reliable brand in movies. Over the last decade, though, he has shown signs of diminished ambition. Cruise seems increasingly content to be nothing but an action hero, and there’s no question that he still delivers great entertainments. But for a while, starting in the late nineties, there were tantalizing hints of something more. Between 1999 and 2004, he made a series of movies that were essentially about being Tom Cruise, beginning with Eyes Wide Shut, a grueling experience that seems to have catalyzed his interest in pushing against his own aura. Stanley Kubrick always knew that he wanted a married couple to play Bill and Alice Harford, and the result is a movie that only becomes more complex and intriguing—at least to my eyes—the more we learn about how that marriage unraveled. Cruise never quite managed to pull off the same trick again, but his performances in movies from Magnolia to Collateral feel like a series of exploratory maneuvers, played out for an audience of millions. After War of the Worlds, the effort faded, and he spends most of his time now leveraging his history and presence in ways that are more obvious, which isn’t to say that they aren’t effective.

But I miss the Cruise of the turn of the millennium, a peerless creation that received its definitive statement in Vanilla Sky, which I still regard as criminally unappreciated and misunderstood. It feels like a snapshot now of a lost moment, both in history—you can see the Twin Towers looming in the background of a crucial shot—and in my own life: I saw it just before moving to New York after college, and it’s my favorite portrait of that city as it existed in those days. I’m not sure what drew Cruise to attempt a remake of Abre Los Ojos, or to recruit Cameron Crowe to direct it, but the sheer impersonality of the project seems to have freed Crowe, who transformed it from a straight thriller into a pop cultural phantasmagoria. It’s really an allegory about how we all construct ourselves out of fragments of songs, album covers, and old movies, and it captured something essential for me in a year when I was building an adult life out of little more than a few precious notions. (I ended up seeing it four times in the theater, a personal record, although it was mostly just so I could listen again to the first five notes of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” as they played over the opening cut to black.) And it wouldn’t work at all without the presence of the world’s biggest movie star. Cruise plays much of it in a mask, a visual device that appears in films as different as Eyes Wide Shut and the Mission: Impossible franchise, but as time goes on, Vanilla Sky feels like the movie in which he comes the closest to revealing who he really is, even if it’s nothing more than the sum of his roles. But isn’t that true of everyone?

Written by nevalalee

June 14, 2016 at 9:00 am

5 Responses

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  1. I liked Vanilla Sky too. But it was a confusing movie though.


    June 14, 2016 at 12:30 pm

  2. Damn I LOVE Vanilla Sky. Totally overlooked film. I’m loathe to say films I enjoy are misunderstood by those who don’t feel the same way, but I’d certainly classify this one as misunderstood. Not a big Tom Cruise fan myself, but I appreciate his brilliance in this and Eyes Wide Shut. Good calls there, Alec!


    June 16, 2016 at 12:01 am

  3. @rtimmorris: It’s good to find another Vanilla Sky fan! Sometimes I think that I’m the only one.


    July 16, 2016 at 6:35 am

  4. “Cruise seems increasingly content to be nothing but an action hero”: Maybe he wants to use to their full capacity the years where he’s still at his physical peak and then return to more character-driven work (which I also like more than the logistically impressive but intellectually very slight MO series)? But then I also wouldn’t rule out that Tom will push boundaries and make action films well into his late sixties or early seventies.

    Recently I’ve read with fascination some older Rolling Stone profiles of Cruise: Winging It (1986), Cruise at the Crossroads (1990, shortly after “Born…), Interview: Tom Cruise (1992, around the time of “Far And Away”), and The Passion of the Cruise (2004; Neil Strauss’ piece is the most skeptical of these).

    …which reminded me of the modest proposal I made a couple of months ago that you should write a biography of Tom Cruise. I’m now more certain than ever (and without losing my excitement for your forthcoming Buckminster Fuller book) that this, if I may say so, would be a great project for you!

    Especially since there are not that many exceptional books on Cruise. Maybe Amy Nicholson’s Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor fits the bill? (This is on my to-read list.) I’m wary of Andrew Morton’s biography. I’m certainly interested in Tom’s private life but not in such forensic detail. Again, I’d be counting on you, Alec, to find that sweet spot of informing (Scientology*, of course!) without being needlessly indiscreet :-)

    *BTW, The science of survival is a very nice vignette on exactly that (indeed touchy) subject.


    July 30, 2019 at 1:02 pm

  5. Sorry for another round of Cruise links — it is a symptom of my fascination which is acutely flaring up! Maybe some of this is new to you, Alec (and readers who are interested in TC):

    How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star by the endearingly staunch Cruise supporter Amy Nicholson. This essay is a re-interpretation of the infamous “Oprah moment” — I never understood why people pounced so intensely on that incident — which coincided to Cruise’s detriment with the emergence of streaming video and aggressive gossip blogs.

    The Rehabilitation of Tom Cruise, an interview with Amy Nicholson about her book “Tom Cruise: Anatomy of An Actor”

    Eyes Wide Shut at 15: Inside the Epic, Secretive Film Shoot…, an excerpt from “Anatomy”; tries to defend Cruise from the criticism of “bland acting” in “Eyes”. I also have to say that some of Kubrick’s setting-the-mood tactics sound, with all due respect, rather odd and not very ethical.

    Finally, I’m willing to follow TC to a lot of different places but there are at least two movies which are proving to be tough nuts for me to crack: “Days of Thunder” with its rowdy racetrack atmosphere and the ultra-slick “Top Gun”. It will be interesting to hear your thoughts, Alec, on the franchise (if one could call two movies that), once “Maverick” is released. I tried to watch “Top Gun” a couple of months ago on Netflix and got no further than the famous bar scene.


    August 7, 2019 at 11:35 am

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