Vanilla Sky

A Film Review by David Pascal


Artists, said Marshall McLuhan, are the antennae of the race. Maybe so. But is that because artists simply make good guesses? Or do they help prepare the way for the new, by giving us striking and compelling pictures of it? Artists produce visions of the posssible, and the possibilities they fashion have the power to make others want to fashion them as well. In reality.

Not always, of course. Sometimes artistic prediction moves us away from certain futures. One reason that history's 1984 did not resemble Orwell's 1984 was because of Orwell's 1984.

But artists often move us forward as well. Especially on those occasions when they dream dreams we wish were made real.

Cryonics is a case in point. The subject of restoration from 'cold sleep' has dotted sci-fi for decades now, but not as a concrete possibility. Rather as a dramatic presupposition, allowing Sigourney Weaver to cross interstellar gulfs in the course of squashing mega-roaches.

Like cloning, however, cryonics is no longer exactly part of the future. It's here right now, as every Ted Williams fan can attest, and sites like www.cryonicssociety.org can second. And now that it is -- what should we think about it? How will we regard it? The answers will not be played out in learned debates or medical journals. Art will decide it. Because art has the ability to make the new and the startling into the psychologically acceptable.

Why are there no really good cryonics movies? I think it has to do with the old adage that the best part of the journey is the trip. Getting there may be half the fun, but not in cryonics. A patient frozen in cryostasis neither sightsees nor emotes about it a whole lot. Nor does he or she engage in activities that could be called cinematically engaging.

Thus, while no end of Hollywood's elite have ended up cooled down - from Charlton Heston in Planet Of The Apes to Woody Allen in Sleeper - cryonics has always been the excuse for the story, not its subject. After all, we don't want to sit in a CineMax for two hours looking at someone just lying there frozen. We want to see those Apes scratch!

In The First Immortal, James Halperin came up with perhaps the best solution to this aesthetic dilemma. When Benjamin Franklin Smith, his protagonist, was in the ice and off the stage, Halperin focused on the struggles of friends, family, and society getting him back.

The writer of Vanilla Sky offers another solution -- regrettably, a nonsensical one. In Vanilla Sky, cryonics has developed to a point where people in suspension can experience virtual reality simulations while 'asleep' --- programmed dreams that look like real life, but are not.

Dramatically, this has merit. The hero can experience, and even re-experience, all sorts of dramatic, extraordinary, even impossible things.

Scientifically, it's bogus.

Whatever else dreaming may be, physically it's a phenomenon correlated with unique and identifiable patterns of brain activity. At minus 196 C, there is virtually no molecular activity, and therefore no brain activity. Certainly none that could be remotely characterized as dreaming. Dreaming without brain activity is like running without leg activity. Just not possible.

This impossible characterization of cryonic suspension is the ball tossed to Tom Cruise, and he runs with it for two hours that, frankly, seem more like six. Make no mistake: as a media event affecting the public perception and acceptance of cryonics, Vanilla Sky is significant. As entertainment, however, it is one of the blander dishes served up of late on the screen.

The basic story-line of Vanilla Sky shows us Tom Cruise -- rich, young, toothy, handsome, shallow -- as he lives the dream life of every Nineties yuppie -- zipping from one trendy party to another, sleeping with one gorgeous woman after another, stifling a superior yawn as he intermittently runs a massive publishing conglomerate in his T-shirt and Guccis, etc.

Tragedy strikes: a car crash leaves his features disfigured. Unable to endure life without a pretty face, he chugs a bottle of painkillers, dies, and enters cryonic suspension till the future can supply a really really good nose job specialist.

Silly? Well, yes. The real subject of Vanilla Sky is vanity; and that is what makes watching it such a tedious experience. Is it that important to be pretty? One doesn't want to be Quasimodo, but even people with broken jaws and flattened noses can lead worthwhile lives. Stephen Hawking's limbs may be twisted, and no one would compare Abe Lincoln to Audrey Hepbum - but what of it? There's more to life than perfectly symmetrical white teeth.

In some bad films, you can just barely see the good film that might have been, peeping out. That's the case here. There is a brief snippet where Cruise, insufficiently cute to be the life of the party anymore, actually begins to take his corporate position and responsibilities seriously, and begins to work at them. No longer able to cut it on looks alone, he begins to labor at being something of a substantive human being at last.

This is the film that should have been shot: the story of a human being growing up. Sadly, it wasn't. Cruise's character ultimately decides that the unbeautiful life is not worth living. Better dead than ugly? Applied to politicians and tax investigators, this axiom would seem to have some merit. As one who considers life to be more interesting than death, however, I can't support it as a general proposition.

There are reasons to favor cryonics. Looking good seems rather a more shallow reason than some others. But, as Sly Stone said, different strokes for different folks. Perhaps I'm wrong. We have seen cryonics presented as an alternative to death, but rarely as an alternative to pain; to humiliation and loneliness. Maybe we should.

There are those who want more of the life they're currently leading, and those who want another, a different and superior, life. Tom Cruise shows us a character that wants not so much a survival of the self as a finer self. Vanilla Sky is in many ways an ignoble film, but that is not an ignoble motivation.

Of course Vanilla Sky is pop cinema, not an extended meditation on the multiple attractions of cryonic suspension. So why then give it any serious consideration at all?

Because the possibilities it portrays are on the eve of realization. And while it may be weak as art, as a persuasive image of impending human possibilities, it is formidable. Weak science aside, cryonics has never been portrayed quite so well.

In Vanilla Sky, cryonics is portrayed as a viable, plausible, functioning part of everyday social life. Something reasonable and something available. Cryonics, in this very near-future world, is something acceptable and accepted and not really anything out of the ordinary. The people in cryonics are neither heroic visionaries nor marginal techno-geeks -- they're decent, committed individuals doing a professional, humane job.

(Particularly nicely done is the Tech Support person helping Cruise out at the end of the film: he's there to assist Cruise either in continuing his virtual sojourn in safety and comfort, or to help him wake up from it and enter the real future world on the other side. One has only to contrast this quiet, tactful, unassuming portrayal of compassionate and professional restoration with the standard clips of Dr. Frankenstein screeching "It's Alive!" against a back-drop of jagged lightning bolts, which puncuate earlier news segments on the topic to gauge the tidal change in public perception that is implied.)

Cryonics in Vanilla Sky is presented as a reasonable solution to at least one category of human misery; it is presented as a realistic healer of spiritual as well as physical injuries; a mender of failed destinies. A mending is provided by humane, decent, competent people in what seems to be a professional and flourishing business. This is no small development.

Is this nonetheless not-terribly-enjoyable film worth going to see? The first hour-and-a-half -- not really. But the last half-hour, definitely.

Viewed as a pro-cryonics infomercial, I rather suspect that last half hour of Vanilla Sky may be one of the more significant films to recently hit the screen. As art, or even entertainment -- ugh. Sleeper may have been a delight, but Vanilla Sky? Cloudy and over-cast. If seeing Tom Cruise simulating sex every ten minutes is your idea of entertainment, this film's for you. It's not for me.

But the fact remains, cryonics is coming ever closer to being a fixture of modernity, right along with blogging and the microwave, and that matters. Change a culture's entire relation with death, and you are making a large change indeed. With Vanilla Sky, we see cryonics passing ever closer to the realm of socially accepted fact. That's no small step.

I will confess that I would have liked to see just one trace of the old traditional sci-fi treatment -- to me, the most moving part of Vanilla Sky is the very last frame, when Tom Cruise opens his eyes onto the new world waiting for him -- the real world, that world of the future that is sure to come, if we can only reach it. All we see are his eyes, not what they open onto. Pity; one would have liked to have seen that world.

And if cryonics does arrive? Perhaps we will.

Copyright 2007 by The Cryonics Society



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