Written by: Michael Mackenzie on July 25th, 2005
Theatrical Release Dates: Spain, December 19th, 1997
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Writer: Alejandro Amenabar
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Eduardo Noriega, Fele Martinez, Najwa Nimri
DVD Released: August 21st, 2001
Approximate Running Time: 117 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Surround
DVD Release: Artisan
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $14.98
Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes (original title: Abre Los Ojos) is a classic fairytale residing in a decidedly contemporary world. It deals with César (Eduardo Noriega) a vain, self-absorbed young man whose good looks guarantee him the finest women on offer. Rather than settle down with one, however, he drifts from girl to girl, unable to commit to a relationship (and why should he, when he can have anyone he wants?). Events take a different turn, however, when he falls for Sofía (Penélope Cruz), a beautiful and quirky woman whom he quickly decides is “the one”. Swiping her from under the very nose of his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martinez), César enjoys a fun-filled night with Sofía, but the next morning runs into Nuria (Najwa Nimri), one of his previous one-off conquests. Nuria is the jealous type, and decides to set matters straight by plunging her car off a cliff with César in the passenger seat. When César comes to, he finds that his face has become hideously disfigured and, having lost the will to live (since his looks are the only thing he has going for him), plunges into depression. But there is more to César’s state of mind than meets the eye…
The central concept of this noirish mindbender is as old as the art of storytelling itself. Drawing on classic works of literature like Beauty and the Beast, Open Your Eyes sets the familiar story of the vain prince who is transformed into an ugly monster in a world that seems misleadingly real, when in fact it is anything but. This is a film where nothing is what it seems, and one that miraculously manages to avoid the usual plot-holes that have a habit of cropping up whenever the idea of insanity is dealt with. What makes it work so well is just how normal, almost mundane, everything seems. We can well believe that César is a hedonistic playboy who can have any woman he wants and yet unexpectedly comes across the girl of his dreams, only to be dealt a cruel blow by an extremely twisted Fate. We can also believe that the world around him is perfectly normal and that it is he who is going mad, when in fact we are later told that he is actually the sane one. A lot of this is undoubtedly to do with Amenábar’s no-nonsense shooting style and knack for realistic dialogue, but the performances of the central stars also play a major role. Eduardo Noriega makes César likeable in spite of his narcissism and temper tantrums, and Penélope Cruz imbues Sofía with just the right combination of quirkiness and innocent sexiness to allow us to believe that he could quite easily fall head over heels in love with her. The pair have a wonderful sense of interplay and we can understand César’s frustration when he suddenly goes from being the object of her affections to a disfigured monster that she can barely bring herself to look at.
The audience is kept on its collective toes by Amenábar’s ability to constantly turn the situation on its head. This is a film all about transformations: for instance, César goes from being beautiful to ugly. Likewise, we initially see him as a superficial person inhabiting a real world. In the end, we learn that in fact he is the only part of the world that is real – the ultimate egosist’s fantasy, if you will: “the whole world revolves around me”. The merging of Sofía and Nuria is another manifestation of the transformation concept, and works to underline the fact that César thinks so little of women that he is unable to separate one from the other. It is primarily the fact that all of these classic horror movie nightmare situations can be explained in such everyday terms that gives the film such resonance. Especially in the latter half of the film, as César plunges deeper into despair, the entire situation can easily be said to be his own fault, so it also works as something of a morality parable.
It is hard to find fault with this film. If anything, it could be said to be slightly overlong at two hours (although nowhere near the same extent as its American remake, Vanilla Sky; see below), but I very much doubt that this is the sort of film that those with short attention spans would choose to watch anyway. And if you’re thinking of picking wholes in the (admittedly confusing) concept, don’t bother: try watching it through again, and I seriously doubt you’ll be able to find fault with anything. Open Your Eyes is masterful storytelling, pure and simple: a emotionally driven psychological horror movie that beats the pants off virtually any other similar movie, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Blinded by the Superficial: Comparing Open Your Eyes and Vanilla Sky
Open Your Eyes is a film about appearances and the importance we attach to them. Deftly helmed by Alejandro Amenábar, it is a quiet, clever and self-assured study of the futility of our obsession with looks. Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, on the other hand, is a glossy, big-budget Hollywood remake that transplants the entire script virtually ver batem and yet bring absolutely nothing new to the table. Lazy filmmaking of the worst possible kind, Vanilla Sky is a movie that did not need to be made.
The vast majority of remakes these days run with the basic idea of the original and alters the events and characters to the extent that the two can effectively be considered different movies – for example, the recent Dawn of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes. Vanilla Sky does the opposite, and essentially functions as little more than a translation of the Spanish original into an English-language setting. How Crowe got a screenplay credit from the Writers’ Guild is a mystery to me, since he seems to have operated as little more than a glorified human Babelfish, lifting entire passages of dialogue word for word and, later, in the director’s chair, reproducing the film almost shot for shot. Further compounding this is the fact that Penélope Cruz appears in both films in exactly the same role. It really does seem as if it was simply made to appease people who are unwilling to read subtitles, and as such it becomes impossible to view the remake as a stand-alone film. It’s not a bad film, per se, but it does seem to Miss Amenábar’s point, which is odd given how closely it follows the original material. Interestingly enough, the only person who brings anything new to the cards is Cameron Diaz, whose portrayal of Julie is completely different from Najwa Nimri’s Nuria in Open Your Eyes. Penélope Cruz, on the other hand, gives a noticeably weaker performance than in the original. I’ve heard it said that her English language performances have been consistently poorer than those in which she speaks her native Spanish, and from comparing her work in these two films I can well believe it.
I have no doubt that many people will prefer Vanilla Sky simply because it is in English, features well-known faces and songs and has glossy, soft-focus photography, but I feel that they are missing out on the subtler, richer world of Open Your Eyes. Far from simply being a case of “original is best”, it offers a much more mature look at the central concept of narcissism and is ultimately far more satisfying than its imitator. Unless you absolutely feel that you must watch Tom Cruise playing a thinly veiled caricature of him for two and a half hours, I suggest you give Vanilla Sky a miss.
The transfer, anamorphic 1.78:1 (just falling shy of the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, which is in fact what is stated on the cover), is just on the right side of watch able but is hampered by some noticeable artefacting, particularly in the darker scenes. There is a moderate amount of grain present in the materials used, but unfortunately cramming the entire two-hour film on to a single layer has meant that a fair amount of this has been sacrificed and replaced with swimming macro-blocking. The level of detail is pretty good, although at times the picture looks a bit murky. Eschewing an English dub, Artisan has provided only the original Spanish Dolby Stereo mix, encoded in 2.0 Surround. It sounds very good for the most part, with crisp, clear dialogue and some decent bass. Because of the 2.0 nature of the track, multi-channel effects are not particularly common, but the overall experience is a satisfying one. Optional English subtitles are provided.
One could argue that a film such as this works best without a barrage of special features explaining its meaning and the significance of each minor moment, but even so, the lack of extras is disappointing, with not even a trailer to keep DVD fans entertained. Perfunctory Cast and Crew Biographies/Filmographies are provided for the key talent, as well as a set of Production Notes which give some explanations of Amenábar’s intentions for the film. I would urge all fans of psychological horror to immediately seek out this ambitious and often-unrecognized gem. Although Artisan’s Region 1 DVD is pretty sparse and suffers from a somewhat disappointing visual presentation, it seems to be the best on offer at the moment, and can be obtained reasonably cheaply.
This review originally appeared at Whiggles.com and is reprinted here with permission.