Sunday, June 5, 2011

Movie Bitch: Vanilla Sky

So last week (or it will be last week by the time I get this posted) (I hate my job) (I love my job, but I hate my job) I referenced Vanilla Sky, a god-awful boring crap-fest of a movie that tried really hard to be arty and interesting and instead was insulting to anyone with two brain cells to crack together. And I thought, "Well, why not recap it for the blog?"

Then I thought, "I'd have to watch it again."

Then I realized that I saw it so many times when it was on HBO, back when I had HBO, that I can remember it well enough for my purposes. Which are ranting and funny commentary, and not exactly "being accurate".

Here we go.

I have to admit, I have a strong bias against this movie without seeing it at all: Tom Cruise. I hate Tom Cruise. Not because of the Scientology--I am sure there are wonderful, decent Scientologists who are also actors--but because he is a slimy, scaly fungus growth with really good teeth, and I never could trust him as a protagonist. I was never sure if he wanted my wallet or my liver. Jerry Maguire worked because Jerry was a scumbag. War of the Worlds worked (kinda) because his character was a scumbag. Do you see the trend here?

Movie opens with someone repeating the words Open your eyes. Tom Cruise gets out of bed and starts running around an empty city while the same female voice repeats Open your eyes and his voice-over says something that is theoretically insightful, but in reality it doesn't mean much. Finally, big surprise, he wakes up in his own bed. His girlfriend, Juliana Gianni/Julie/Cameron Diaz, recorded her voice to wake him up, and because these people have no chemistry, you can tell she is in love (because of the number of times he made her come. This is the full depth of her characterization. She loves him because he gives her multiple orgasms) he only wants to screw her. This is actually an important plot point.

We then cut to a prison cell, where Tom Cruise is wearing a plastic mask and talking to Kurt Russel. Kurt is a prison psychologist and Tom is in prison, and everything we've just seen is a flashback. Congratulations. This is a non-linear narrative. We're going to be jumping back and forth in time with the coherency of a grasshopper on crack.

Tom tells Kurt about his life. He's rich. He's got everything he could ever possibly want, and yet he isn't happy. Neither am I. I'm starting to get bored. Then he throws a party, and meets this absolutely beautiful girl named Sophia, played by Penelope Cruz. Cruise and Cruz make out, destroying his other relationship in the process, and then get back to shooting the movie (Sorry. I just, you know, had to).

Anyway, Sophia and Tom's character escape the clutches of the beautiful, blond and crazy Juliana and go to Sophia's apartment, where we have a montage showing Hollywood's idea of how people fall in love. During this, there is a brief, important reference to a dog that fell in ice, froze, and was defrosted. You are not supposed to notice this. The point of the whole exchange is to prove that these are not just soulmates, they are SOULMATES!!! This is TRUE LOVE! And let's prove it by doing romantic drawings and having them roll around on the couch! And we can't, like, stretch it over a realistic period of time because the plot demands we go through the whole SOULMATE thing in one night. Not even twenty-four hours, and Tom knows this is the love of his life.

Well, some people have the same problem with impulse shopping.

Next morning Julie drives up in her car and asks Tom if she's just his "fuck buddy", reminds him of how often he made her come (because sexual sensation=love, y'all) (Though technically, this is actually a really good case of projecting your own feelings onto someone else. He gives her a positive emotional reaction, and she assumes that he feels positively towards her, when in reality he's miserable. This is a good piece of characterization, and if I actually gave a flying crap what happened to these people, I would probably be enthralled. But dude? You cheated on your girlfriend. You don't deserve what she's about to do, but I have no sympathy for you) (So to all you writers: do not have your character be an ass and then have something terrible happen to them, UNLESS the terrible thing is both a result of their bad behavior, something we can buy as "punishment", something that we see as unfair punishment--this puts us back on the character's side-- and something RELEVANT TO THE FUCKING PLOT)(but we're getting to that)

Julie decides that ranting about relationship issues isn't enough and drives off a bridge. She dies. Tom Cruise is horribly disfigured by prosthetic skin and we, the audience, are supposed to feel sorry for his character. But we can't, because he just abandoned his long-term relationship for a girl he met twenty four hours ago. Anyway, his money can't fix his face and the doctors give him a prosthetic--AKA Mask--and he takes Sophia and his best friend to a dance club so he can alienate the last two people in this movie who care about him. This assessment includes the audience.

He wakes up in a gutter, and from that point on, his life is perfect. Unrealistically, shinily perfect. He marries Sophia, he gets his face fixed, we have many, many shots of Tom attempting to emote and it just coming off as a car salesman trying to convince you that the car really will run. Then he has a series of apparent hallucinations that end with him believing that Sophia is Julie, and him smothering her with a pillow. He has murdered the apparent love of his life. Cue sad music. Cut back to prison, where he is obviously being assessed for trial.

And I have rushed through half of this movie because everything in the above paragraph? It doesn't matter. Tom and Kurt finish their conversation. Tom sees a TV advertisement for "Life Extension", which sounds like a brand of hair weave, but whatever. Tom declares this is familiar and demands Kurt take him there. And being the responsible psychologist interviewing a dangerous criminal with murderous tendencies and a very loose grip on reality, Kurt says "lets go!" and drives him right to the building. Because if he didn't, this movie wouldn't be able to end, and trust me. After the sugar saccharine lovey-dovey montage with its healthy topping of murder, WE WANT IT TO END. A saleswoman shows him an ad pitch for cryogenic storage that doubles as virtual reality. "The Lucid Dream."

Tom, proving he is perfectly sane, realizes that he is in the Lucid dream and screams for tech support. It arrives and explains that everything from when he woke up in the gutter to now is a dream. He's dead. He committed suicide because he couldn't stand his face. And the love of his life, Sophia? Well, Tom's slept for a hundred fifty years, so she's dead. His friends are dead. Everything he knows is dead. He can be revived, but first he has to jump off a fucking building to get there. The one he's standing on, as a matter of fact. Apparently he put this into a clause in his contract, that he must "face his final fear" in order to get out of this.

And the consequences of every single fucking thing we have sat through in this movie? Gone! 

Do you see why I hate this movie yet? No? Want me to put this into perspective?

This is not a plot hole. This is a fucking plot elevator. This is the writers saying "you know the last hour you slogged through in the desperate hope that its ending would make it worth it? Well, fuck you! It didn't really happen!" We can go from "Tom wakes up in a ditch" to "Tech support shows up" without loosing anything. Nothing of importance has happened. He didn't marry the love of his life. He didn't get his face fixed. He didn't showcase the bravery and resiliency he displays in the hour that isn't. He kills himself, and then can chose between continuing to exist with the illusion of purpose, or to enter a world he's never seen, with technology he's never seen, with no money (this is made very clear) no friends, and the love of his life--who he only knew for a total twenty hours maximum--being very, very dead. And the movie tries very hard to convince us that stepping off into the unknown is the brave and adult choice.

Except Tom couldn't handle having a fucked up face when he was a millionaire and had a radiant girlfriend. His face (and massive drug OD) can be fixed now, but he has no money, no friends and again, Sophia really is dead. She died of old age. So now he goes from being happily married to a widower-that-wasn't and he gets to spend whatever life he has in this future alone and broke. And suicide worked pretty well for him the last time...

In Fight Club, you discover that Tyler Durden was all in the Narrator's head and that the Narrator did everything that Tyler did. It's a little (very little) like this twist in Vanilla Sky. But as I said last week, what made it work was the consequences the Narrator suffered because of his choices as Tyler. This revelation was not the climax of the movie. Rather, it jump starts the third act and makes Narrator's choice to shoot himself in the mouth kind of, sort of, maybe noble. Jury's still out on that. (Having endured bouts of suicidal ideation myself, I hesitate to glorify suicide as a life choice) Also, it fit the tone of the movie: Hopeless, angry and desperate. Vanilla Sky is a hopeful melange of romance and light suspense. The only reason the revelation that Tom killed himself doesn't break this veneer is because the movie doesn't give his suicide any weight. It is suicide as a plot point. He suffers no consequences for making the dumbest choice on earth. Instead, he is rewarded, because it's also revealed that he blew his relationship with Sophia and pretty much became a souless wreck. Oh, and "he was missed" (insert shot of Penelope Cruz looking sad yet hopeful at Tom's coffin). So he wrecked her life as well. And now that his guilty subconscious has wrecked his not-life too, well, time to start over with a clean slate!

Gag me.

If you want a plot revelation like this to work (It's all in your head!) then you have to show the consequences of this revelation and foreshadow the revelation properly. You can't just throw a few off-the-wall events into the romantic conversations and then ret-con the rest of it into fitting later, which is what Vanilla Sky did. You have to basically put the information right in front of the reader/viewer and hope to god they don't catch on. And if it contains an off-the-wall element (He's dead! You've got MPD!) then that element needs to be present in 50% of the story. The biggest flaw in Vanilla Sky was that the truth (it's a dream created by being cryogenically frozen) is never there. The dream is there at the beginning, but we very obviously don't have the technology for this, and never, not once, is there a hint of anything more advanced. Also, I'm sorry, but if I'm asleep for 150 years I'm going to come up with something better than dating a really hot chick and continuing the life I killed myself to escape from. You're telling me that all this guy wanted was to bang Sophia and kill Juliana? He didn't want flying cars? Unicorns? Space aliens? You really expect me to believe that Tom Cruise's subconscious does not contain space aliens?

Frankly, I don't know if Vanilla Sky could have been salvaged by an easy plot-fix. The whole point of the story was the revelation. Once you know that Tom was dead for half the movie, the rest of the film has no weight at all. Fight Club is awesome because you can still enjoy it, knowing that Tyler isn't "real". Sixth Sense is awesome for the same reason. You can watch it knowing full well that Bruce Willis is dead, and it's just as good. The Sting, the FBI plot was another of Gondorf's cons, and Hooker was in on it the whole time. You can watch the movie knowing this. The writers put time and thought into making the movie as full and suspenseful as possible, not because they wanted to make it a good movie (or, not only because they wanted to make it a good movie) but because they wanted to have scenes where the primary characters literally look right at the camera and explain the entire plot, and you are so distracted by everything else going on in the movie it never consciously registers. The twist is so good not because it's completely unexpected, but because subconsciously, you already know what it is. A good twist is not a revelation. A good twist is having your suspicions confirmed when you didn't even know you suspected something. Foreshadowing is just the movie talking to the under-part of your brain while the over-part is staring at the pretty colors.

Vanilla Sky has so little story going for it, it can't do it. It cannot introduce decent foreshadowing because it would break the movie. It cannot introduce any hints at a dream-like state because its story requires you to believe in this reality, and yet it desperately needs these hints to exist, so it goes at it in this limp, half hearted way that completely defuses any weight the ending might have. And this is completely ignoring how Tom Cruise's character never suffers any on-screen consequences for his bad choices--and malfunctioning dream machines don't count.

All in all, it's a frustrating movie that spends an hour and a half convincing you it's a romantic movie, and twenty minutes trying to sell that it's a sci-fi/horror story. It fails at both. If you want to cure insomnia before you develop a case of Tyler Durden, watch Vanilla Sky. If you're still sane and can sleep, though, avoid if at all possible.

1 comment:

  1. "This is a non-linear narrative. We're going to be jumping back and forth in time with the coherency of a grasshopper on crack."

    For non-linear narratives that work try *Momento* or *The Limey*.

    For a "It was all a dream" narrative that works, try *Mulholland Drive*. Also the best possible Laura Elena Harring/Naomi Watts scene ever, although that may not be to your tastes.