Vanilla Sky
Vanilla Sky

USA, 2001. Rated R. 135 minutes.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee, Kurt Russell, Timothy Spall, Noah Taylor, Tilda Swinton, Johnny Galecki, Alicia Witt, Jennifer Aspen
Writers: Cameron Crowe, based on the Abre Los Ojos screenplay by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil Rodríguez
Music: Nancy Wilson with songs by Paul McCartney, R.E.M., et al.
Cinematographer: John Toll
Producer: Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner
Director: Cameron Crowe


Grade: A- Analysis by Carlo Cavagna

The book sits innocently on the table as inmate David Aames (Tom Cruise) tells his story to psychologist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell), who is trying to determine why Aames has been accused of committing murder. The lettering on the cover is not easily discerned, but if you have this particular edition in your home, you recognize it immediately. It is a copy of the Vintage Books edition of Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Gustav Jung. Its continued presence on the table as the movie unfolds via flashback, even as Dr. McCabe professes not to be interested in dreams, is the key to unlocking the riddles of Vanilla Sky. Vanilla Sky is the latest in a series of mind-fuck movies released in the fall of 2001 that includes Waking Life, Mulholland Drive, and Donnie Darko. All deal with dreams, subjective reality, and the unconscious--as Julie Andrews might have sung, these are a few of Jung's favorite things. Of these movies, Vanilla Sky is the most overtly Jungian of the group. It is fundamentally about the relationship between the ego and the unconscious, and practically a primer on the most fundamental concepts found in any Jungian glossary.

Jung 101

Psychologist/philosopher Carl Jung (1875-1961) believed that there are at least two levels of the unconscious, the individual unconscious and the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is our collective memory and our inherited instincts and desires as members of the human race. Because the collective unconscious is common to all humanity, it explains why we tend to respond similarly to certain symbols, ideals, and human dilemmas, which Jung called "archetypes." Not surprisingly, archetypes fill our dreams and myths--our earliest and most resonant stories.

Jung himself objected to those who characterized his ideas as somehow mystical. He saw the collective unconscious as inherited thought patterns, noting that though human brains are all different, the process of mental functioning is collective and universal. That universal similarity is the collective psyche. The extent to which our psychology is collective is astonishing, yet individuation is a psychological necessity. Jung wrote that our personal psyche bears the same relationship to the collective psyche as the individual to society. See "Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious," The Portable Jung, Penguin Books, 1971, pages 93, 103.

Originally a disciple of Freud, Jung became an almost-equally famous psychologist in his own right. Jung came to the conclusion that there is more to us than infantile tendencies and formative childhood experiences, which are the focus of Freudian analysis. For Jung, the unconscious includes desires repressed by our education and socialization, but there is more "psychic material that lies below the threshold of consciousness."1 The unconscious is the foundation on which the conscious mind is based.

As David speaks with Dr. McCabe, he wears a facial prosthetic--a form-fitting latex mask that hides his face. He has been disfigured, we learn, and the mask's perfect features hide the ugliness beneath. He cannot take it off; he needs the mask to feel himself. The mask is his persona. Originally the name for the mask worn by a stage performer, the term was used by Jung to describe the face we present to society and even ourselves.2

David's persona--the role he plays--is that of an irresponsible, carefree playboy who has inherited the controlling share of a magazine publishing empire, along with a fantastic amount of money, from his father. He's got the fancy apartment overlooking Central Park, the antique Mustang, the flat-screen TV that retracts into the floor, and the "fuck-buddy," Julie Gianni, who looks like Cameron Diaz. His best friend, Brian Shelby (Jason Lee), warns him that someday he will find something deeper, beyond his shallow existence, and will come to know what love really is. The catch, Brian continues, is that David has got to experience pain and unhappiness, which he never has, in order to appreciate things like love.

In a nutshell, that is what happens. Brian attends David's birthday party with a new love interest named Sophia, played by Penélope Cruz. She is, unfortunately, a distracting presence, because it is impossible to watch Sophia and the suddenly jealous Julie without thinking of Cruz's real-life romance with Cruise and his soap-opera divorce from Nicole Kidman. Cruz, incidentally, also appeared in the Spanish-language Abre Los Ojos, of which Vanilla Sky is a remake, though writer/director Cameron Crowe characterizes this work as more of a re-interpretation.Cruz and Cruise (I have not seen Abre Los Ojos and therefore cannot comment, and not having seen it probably enhanced my enjoyment of Vanilla Sky, as it freed me of expectations and reference points.)

David is instantly attracted to Sophia, and chases her unrelentingly. Brian is hurt. Julie, supposedly a casual-sex partner, is furious. Meanwhile, David's loyal business associate, Thomas Tipp (Timothy Spall), warns him that his job is in jeopardy. It all culminates in a horrible accident that leaves David's perfect face hideously disfigured and Julie dead.

(All this you know from the movie trailer, but it is almost impossible to discuss the movie without giving more things away. To avoid doing so as much as possible, I'll continue to write in Jungian generalities. Nevertheless, those who prefer avoiding spoilers altogether should read no further.)

Sophia and David spend only one night together, yet he becomes obsessed. Homophonic last names and real-life romance aside, Cruise and Cruz lack onscreen chemistry, so we must accept on faith that Sophia is the personification of David's ideal woman. His attraction to her is irresistible because she is his anima, his archetypal dream lover, the personification of the feminine nature in his own unconscious. Jung posited that all men carry an ideal image of woman in their heads and unconsciously project that image onto "the person of the beloved."3

It is also worth noting that "Sophia" is a Greek word that means wisdom, something David sorely lacks. Therefore, his attraction to her simply is. While in a different film we might legitimately complain about a lack of believability, in this film it is acceptable, because an irresistible and inexplicable attraction best serves the story and fits into the Jungian thematic whole.

David's attraction to Sophia and his sudden, related desire not to be seen as a semi-idiotic playboy mean that he doesn't know himself very well. Though he needs to be seen in a certain way by society to function, David's real self is not compatible with the persona he wears. There is more to the self than the conscious mind, which is ultimately why David starts rejecting elements of his reality and begins to see apparitions of Julia (who is nothing other than the flip side of Sophia). As Jung wrote, "there will always exist an indeterminate and indeterminable amount of unconscious material which belongs to the totality of the self."4 Thus, David is continually Cruz and Diazadmonished by Sophia's disembodied voice (sometimes it belongs to Julia) to "Open your eyes," a phrase that recalls Stanley Kubrick's swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, which also stars Cruise.

David's disfigured face, which he sometimes hides with his mask, represents his shadow. For Jung, the shadow is the inferior part of the personality, the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements that, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life and therefore coalesce into a relatively autonomous "splinter personality" in the unconscious. Despite the negative connotations of the word "shadow," Jung meant it to encompass all those qualities that are suppressed, both positive and negative. "The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly."5

As one of the many prophets and philosophers in Waking Life might have said, David's reality is subjective, and his shadow is breaking through into consciousness. This is the source of the film's main conflict. In discussing dream therapy and the difficulty of processing and assimilating the unconscious, Jung wrote that several negative outcomes are possible--eccentricity, infantilism, paranoia, schizophrenia, or regression (the restoration of the persona).6 The revelation and assimilation of David's unconscious is essentially the story of Vanilla Sky.
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Vanilla Sky seems unusually cerebral subject matter for Cameron Crowe, who also directed Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, and Say Anything, all well crafted, but more interpersonal movies. He handles the high-flown subject well, though, particularly the use of music (a Crowe strength), even if his style is less distinctive here. Many of the actors, including Cruise (Jerry Maguire), Lee (Almost Famous), and Noah Taylor (Almost Famous) have worked with Crowe before. Cruise is somewhat limited as an actor, but he is perfectly cast in these privileged, pretty-boy asshole roles. Cruz does not do anything to justify her over-extended stay as flavor-of-the-moment (in the United States), while Diaz justly transcended it several years ago, to the surprise of many (including myself). Here she more than ably passes the audition for the next Single White Fatal Attraction That Rocks the Cradle role that comes along.

If Jung's ideas sound like a bunch of poppycock, then you should probably avoid Vanilla Sky. Not being a psychologist, I can't effectively argue that they are or they aren't, but I do find them fascinating. Jung seems to be a favorite of filmmakers, probably because there is much more fodder for the artist in his teachings than in Freud's it's-all-about-your-relationship-to-your-mother/father perspective.

The Jungian motifs and themes in common with Waking Life, Donnie Darko, and Mulholland Drive (dreams, subjective reality, the unconscious, etc.) should be readily apparent to anyone who has seen all those films. Waking Life and Mulholland Drive were too confused, unfocused, and inconsistent in tone, but Vanilla Sky errs too far in the opposite direction. Crowe pins down the answers too clearly in the resolution when a little mystery, as in Donnie Darko, might have been more satisfying. The seductiveness of Jung's ideas lies in their mystery, after all. He wrote that full understanding of the whole of our unconscious is impossible. The answers provided in Vanilla Sky are a little limiting and the journey is a little long, but it's an exciting exploration nonetheless.


1. See "Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious," The Portable Jung, Penguin Books, 1971, page 71. [back]

2. Jung wrote:

One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is." ("The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious," The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 9, i, par. 122f.)

It is, as its name implies, only a mask…that feigns individuality…whereas one is simply acting a role . . . Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be. He takes a name, earns a title, exercises a function, he is this or that . . . [T]here is…something individual in the persona…yet the unconscious self can never be suppressed to the point of extinction. ("Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious," The Portable Jung, Penguin Books, 1971, page 105-106.) [back]

3. Jung wrote:

Every man carries with him the eternal image of woman, not the image of this or that particular woman, but a definitive feminine image. This image is fundamentally unconscious, an hereditary factor of primordial origin engraved in the living organic system of the man, an imprint or 'archetype' of all the ancestral experiences of the female, a deposit, as it were, of all the impressions ever made by woman . . . Since this image is unconscious, it is always unconsciously projected on the person of the beloved, and is one of the chief reasons for passionate attraction or aversion. ("The Development of Personality," The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 17, paragraph 338.) [back]

4. "Two Essays on Analytical Psychology," The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 7, par. 274. [back]

5. "The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious," The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 9, par. 284 f. [back]

6. Jung wrote:

Once the unconscious contents break through into consciousness, filling it with their uncanny power of conviction, the question arises about how the individual will react. Will he be overpowered by these contents? Will he credulously accept them? Or will he reject them? . . . The first case signifies paranoia or schizophrenia; the second may either become an eccentric with a taste for prophecy, or he may revert to an infantile attitude and be cut off from human society; the third signifies the regressive restoration of the persona." ("Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious," The Portable Jung, Penguin Books, 1971, page 112.) [back]

Analysis © December 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved

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