Picture yourself in a New York City movie theater. It’s December 14, 2001. The film you’re watching is Vanilla Sky, a sci-fi fantasy from director Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise, who delighted the world with Jerry Maguire a few years earlier.
You are probably not enjoying yourself (it received a D- on Cinemascore) and as the film nears its twisty, trippy conclusion, your mind might be drifting towards more actionable realities, like which subway line to take home or what to eat for dinner. But then you come to the final scene, and you immediately snap to attention. You watch Cruise stand atop the tallest building in New York at dawn and willfully leap. He falls past endless office windows, braces for impact and hits the pavement.
It’s hard to imagine any New Yorker watching this scene and not immediately flashing back to the events that occurred just three months prior, when as many as 200 Americans either jumped or fell to their deaths to escape the inferno raging inside some of the tallest buildings in New York. It would have been easy to read the film as a shameless ploy by Crowe to cash in on one of the most traumatic events in American history. Or maybe, if we were feeling generous, we could have seen it as an attempt to help the nation heal by forcing us to re-live the trauma in a safe space, much like Paul Greengrass’s United 93 did.
But then you realize that, while Vanilla Sky was released in December 2001, it actually began shooting a year before. Does this mean that the film predicted the 9/11 attacks? No, not exactly. It’s a case of close-to-home coincidence. Yet when it comes to 9/11, we find coincidences wherever we look. Search “movies that predicted 9/11” on YouTube, and you will find a nearly endless stream of supercuts of films that contained the numbers “9” and “11,” including a bridge in Terminator 2: Judgment Day whose height is listed at “9’11”,” and Neo’s passport in The Matrix, whose expiration date is 9/11/01. Of course, those filmmakers chose the combination of numbers for the great symbolic meaning it has in our culture, which is likely the same thing that motivated Osama bin Laden to choose it.
But we can also read the echoes between Vanilla Sky and the attacks on 9/11 as an example of how certain cultural, political and social conditions can express themselves in widely divergent ways.
No film released prior to the attacks seems so deeply, even spiritually, connected to the attacks. Years later, the journey of its protagonist remains perhaps the most useful cultural analogy for America at the end of the 20th century: riding a wave of economic and foreign policy successes that made it feel stronger and more invulnerable than we ever were or could be. Of course, no one saw anything profound in it at the time. At first, the critical consensus was that Vanilla Sky was just a forgivable lapse in judgment made by two otherwise successful filmmakers.
Cruise optioned the rights to the film after the Spanish film on which it was based, 1997’s Abre los Ojos, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997. Moved by the film, he said, “[T]his was a universal story that was still open-ended, that still felt like it needed another chapter to be told.” Cruise convinced his friend and sometimes collaborator Cameron Crowe to write the remake ‐ a next chapter ‐ which Crowe moved onto after 1999’s Almost Famous. They worked quickly to avoid an impending Actors’ and Writers’ Guild strike that never materialized. Still, what Crowe described as the “adrenalized nature of the scriptwriting and filming” led to less of an adaptation and more of a shot-for-shot remake of Abre los Ojos.
If Vanilla Sky is a cultural antecedent to 9/11, so is Abre los Ojos, but the changes Crowe made, while scant, only reinforced the connection. To Americanize the film, Crowe moved the action from Barcelona to New York City, and, of course, Cruise took over the lead role. Viewing the film as a snapshot of America at the turn of the century, no one else could have played the part. Cruise’s ascension to super-stardom in the mid-‘80s with roles as young, arrogant jerks in Top Gun, Cocktail, and Days of Thunder epitomized the individualistic Reagan Era. He was cocky and good-looking, and it was hard to believe he would ever fail at anything. Vanilla Sky is a deconstruction of the Cruise persona and, by extension, that era’s values.
As the film starts, Cruise’s David Aames is a wealthy playboy who inherited a vast publishing empire after his parents’ death and has since coasted through life on his immense charm and wealth. He assumes the good times will last, telling the audience that “being young…is about believing you are the one person who will live forever.” By the late 1990s, Americans were feeling the same way. Our economy was the envy of the world, but it was built on the income inequality fostered the decade prior. The dotcom bubble and the post-Cold War boom fostered feelings of invincibility. As the 20th gave way, many Americans felt a sense of destiny about their hegemony, as if events were converging for the 21st century to be one long American victory lap.
Just like the United States of the moment, Aames’ delusions of invulnerability catch up to him. The night after meeting the would-be love of his life (Penelope Cruz), he is driven off a bridge by a former flame (Cameron Diaz) that he has been casually and carelessly sleeping with. The accident destroys his beautiful face and obliterates all his illusions. It also launches the film into a dream state with a plot that seems to oscillate between fantasy and reality. Is Ames awake, or is he dreaming? Is he alive or dead? It is not until the film’s final scene ‐ moments before he takes that prescient leap back to reality ‐ that we understand the true nature of his existence.
Critics did not appreciate the film’s exploration of reality, and they lambasted the film for toying with the viewers. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman deemed it “a cracked hall of mirrors taped together by a What is reality? cryogenics plot scored to Cameron Crowe’s record collection.”
Maybe the critical community had just gotten tired of films with twist endings (a trend in the late 1990s), but a few years later, Chuck Klosterman led a critical re-evaluation. In his book “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” he defended the film and the very concept of twist endings against Gleiberman:
“That particular question [What is reality?] is precisely why I think Vanilla Sky was one of the more worthwhile movies I’ve seen in the past ten years, along with Memento, Mulholland Drive, Waking Life, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, Donnie Darko, eXistenz, and a scant handful of other films, all of which tangentially ask the only relevant question available for contemporary filmmakers.”
Klosterman’s list of films dealing with the nature of reality clearly demonstrates a pattern, but what was the meaning of it? Why were Vanilla Sky and those other iconic films wrestling with this issue at the turn of the century? One critic identified as the cause the incroachment of digital life into our everday realities. In a landmark piece for Artforum, J. Hoberman defined the character of American cinema at the turn of the century as one of “objective anxiety” over advances in computer-generated imagery in film. This anxiety reached its apex in 1999, when The Matrix (which also embedded these fears into its plot) and The Phantom Menace dominated cinemas, while paranoia over the dotcom bubble and the Y2K “bug” dominated our conversations off-screen.
In short, we were having trouble figuring out what was real, and Hoberman felt that terrorist attacks only further complicated the matter, asking if “the history-changing shock of 9/11 plunge[d] the nascent twenty-first century into an alternative universe ‐ or reveal[ed] a new reality.” You could argue that most of the political debates over our foreign policy that have occurred in the last 13 years have been asking the same question.
It is also the question Vanilla Sky asks. Or rather, the film wonders whether we want reality, or whether we prefer the fantasy. As we watch David Aames lose his mighty kingdom ‐ his publishing empire, his face and, of course, the girl ‐ there is a nagging feeling that he will regain it. This is Hollywood, after all. More importantly, this is Tom Cruise, America’s most cherished dream-maker, who has convinced audiences that their dreams can becomes reality for more than a quarter-century. Surely, his nightmare will end, and he will finally learn to appreciate all the wealth he inherited and never before deserved. Cue hand-holding. Cue sunset.
But in the film’s final scenes, Aames literally throws himself into a new reality. He learns that his body was frozen at the time of his death, and that his life has been a lucid dream of his own design. In that final scene, he is forced to choose between the fantasy he had bought and paid for, or an uncertain reality he has never known and has little control over (as a nod to the impending budgetary disasters of Iraq, Afghanistan and the collapse of 2008, Aames is told before he jumps that in the new reality his money “won’t last long”). There is little suspense which one he will choose. Once you recognize that you are living in a fantasy, it’s too hard to go back. You have to embrace the new reality. You have to take that leap. At least, that’s how it is in the movies.
After Vanilla Sky, Hollywood woke up to a post-9/11 reality. The films of the next few years reflected an entirely new set of anxieties. Iconic movie heroes like Batman and James Bond were rebooted into harsh and morally ambiguous franchises. Visceral action sequences produced by hand-held cameras and quick-cutting became de rigueur for action movies like the Bourne films directed by Greengrass. These aesthetics rejected Hollywood’s century-old commitment to fantasy and instead brought the violent, post-9/11 world into our cinemas and living rooms.
But each of those films came after the event. If there were ever an argument for how pop culture can reflect not just our past and our present but even our future, it is Vanilla Sky and, in particular, that last scene in which Tom Cruise becomes the Falling Man. That moniker, of course, was given to the individual immortalized in a photo taken on the morning of 9/11. It’s just what it says it is. A man has jumped or fallen from the top of the World Trade Center building, and he is captured in a shot taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew. In the photo, he seems suspended, upside-down.
The Falling Man has endured ‐ in books (Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”), television (the opening credits of Mad Men), and here in film ‐ because it perfectly encapsulates what 9/11 meant to our nation. On that day, we were stuck between the past and the future, looking at the world through inverted eyes, trying in vain to get our bearings. That Vanilla Sky could have predicted that moment serves as a convincing argument for the importance of pop culture, which can tell us where we’ve come from, where we are and, sometimes, where we’re going.
Related Topics: Tom Cruise