It is an unfortunate thing that American audiences have a difficult time embracing foreign films. A typical commentary on why this is the case is that Americans are too lazy to read subtitles. After watching both “Vanilla Sky” and “Abre los Ojos,” subtitles do not seem the sole reason that foreign films are passed over here, because the most glaringly highlighted differences seem to be more American pop culture and sentiment related. In major cities across the U.S., there is ample opportunity to get exposure to these wonderful, artful and many times superior foreign films (especially in remake situations), but American audiences choose to “close their eyes” to them.
With the 2001 film “Vanilla Sky” directed by Cameron Crowe (“Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous”), we see the extremely close duplicate of the original 1997 Spanish film titled “Abre los Ojos.” “Vanilla Sky” tells us the story of David (Tom Cruise), a playboy type who, as a young man, inherits enormous wealth and status from his father in the publishing business. Being a playboy, David finally runs into a woman Julie (Cameron Diaz), who becomes unhinged by his insensitive ways and takes him for a ride off of a road ending with her death and his disfigurement. Sofia, played by Penelope Cruz in both films, is a woman David has one romantic love-at-first sight day with prior to his accident. Even though there is a struggle for David to reconnect with Sofia after his disfigurement, he finally does so, and there the plot takes on some magical realism and twisting in the last act.
Throughout the film, David narrates all of these events to a psychiatrist because he is locked up for murder. We find out what exactly happened to lead him to this fate toward the end of the film. The film is a journey of awakening and awareness for David in “Vanilla Sky” and Cesar in “Abre los Ojos,” as they try to answer the question that is posed to them, ‘What is happiness to you?’
There are minor variations in details between the two stories in “Vanilla Sky” and “Abre los Ojos,” such as names of characters, David’s/Cesar’s source of wealth and Sofia’s occupation. The acting in the original film has more of a serious tone to it; while Eduardo Noriega plays Cesar with depth and conviction, Cruise plays David with an underlying sentiment of humor and lightheartedness. The best friend, played with humor as well by Jason Lee in the American version, is played seriously and candidly in the Spanish version by Fele Martinez. Cruz plays the character of Sofia with a lovely, intriguing air in both, but seems more comfortable in the Spanish version due to the language. There is also the signature Cameron Crowe pop-music choices in “Vanilla Sky” as opposed to the more diverse choice of music in the “Abre los Ojos.”
The main differences between “Vanilla Sky” and “Abre los Ojos” really come in the form of American culture and sentiment, as previously mentioned. Crowe injects this over-sentimentality into “Vanilla Sky” that is ever-present in American mainstream cinema, perpetrated by directors like himself and Spielberg. This gives a general sense of coziness, but in the end, it just leads to the film being shellacked with a corny layer of dialogue and weepy camera angles.
It is unfortunate that Abre los Ojos did not get the exposure it deserved as a film, and that Amenabar missed out on the mainstream success a Hollywood movie like “Vanilla Sky” can conjure. Criticisms that the American film wasn’t as good for reasons of choice with actors, music or cinematography aside, it does make sense that Crowe did not want to change the story and characters because the film was superb as it was. If Crowe had altered Amenabar’s film significantly, he would have been criticized for changing a film that was good just as it was. Thus, Crowe was destined to experience the no-win situations that filming a remake get you into.
This is something that is extremely rare – to be able to conclude that in the film world, two films can be so similar, and that because “Vanilla Sky” mimics the already wonderfully acted, shot and constructed Spanish film “Abre los Ojos,” if you see one, there really isn’t a need to see the other. In the end, it is a matter of preference to see an Americanized version of a film or the original source, which itself is a great film.