So, I had remembered this movie as being a total mind-fuck, but it turns out it's actually quite straightforward. What's funny though, is that I'll bet you remember it as a total mindfuck. I certainly did. Shall we? Yes, I think so.
The movie opens with Tom Cruise being awoken by Penelope Cruz's voice on his alarm clock, then driving down the streets of a totally abandoned New York City, climaxing in a solitary moment in Times Square. Except it turns out it's just a dream. There isn't really any point to this sequence, except that it's really cool and probably cost an outrageous amount of money. Ok, that's unfair. The purpose of the scene is to establish this motif of strange things happening that turn out to be dreams. But then he wakes up for real, except this time, it's Cameron Diaz's voice, and she's there too, but other than that, he does pretty much exactly the same thing as he did in the dream sequence, except without the lack of people, and then we're off. Then, woah, next surprise, none of this is actually happening at all; it's actually being narrated by Tom Cruise to Kurt Russell. Tom Cruise is wearing a creepy mask. So we know that some serious shit is gonna go down.
So after, I think, some foreshadowing type questions from Kurt Russell, we proceed with the story. Tom Cruise is sleeping with Cameron Diaz. He's best friends with Jason Lee. Then, on the night of his birthday, he meets Penelope Cruz, who happens to be Jason Lee's date. They, of course, fall madly in love. There's some tension with Jason Lee. But Tom is a ruthless guy, so he goes home with Penelope, where they have a magical romantic night. He leaves her apartment, and finds Cameron, who is kind of obsessed with him. He decides to get into her car. She goes a bit batshit, tells him he needs to learn to live with the consequences of his actions, and ends up driving off a bridge. The accident kills her and leaves Tom disfigured. Well, that explains the mask.
Story continues, interspersed with moments that remind us that this is Tom telling the story. Which kind of makes you wonder about the scenes that he isn't in and how he would know what is happening in them, but hey, whatever. Also, we keep seeing commercials for a company that cryogenically freezes people called Life Extension. It comes up so many times that you'd have to be a fucking halfwit not to realize it must be significant, and probably not purely because it reminds Tom of Penelope. But anyhow, after a night of hard drinking, he is found on the street by Penelope Cruz, and like magic, they embark upon a beautiful love affair. Then, woah, next mind-fuck, Kurt Russell tells him his face is actually fine. Tom refuses to take off the mask. But sure enough, as the story continues, we find out his face did in fact get fixed. But then, things went weird. At some point here, we learn that a murder has happened. So we're getting pretty invested in Tom's story, because we know that some really, really strange stuff is gonna happen.
Indeed. Tom is convinced that his business associates are trying to destroy him. Then there's some weird, weird stuff where Penelope keeps turning into Cameron, and this is of course freaking Tom out big time, and well, he ends up killing her. Then he meets a guy in a bar who tells him they've met before, and shows him that he can control reality. Oddly enough, he just runs out of the bar and carries on. How he actually ends up in the prison where he's talking to Kurt Russell is never made clear, but Kurt keeps asking about Eli, who Tom apparently cries out for in his sleep. Eli turns out to be LE, and the guy in the bar is from the company. They go to the company. There Tom learns that he has been cryogenically frozen, and opted for the lucid dreaming option that would allow him to be living in a dream world. In fact, everything since that night of hard drinking is actually not real. He is told how his real life actually went - he never saw Penelope again, he built up his business, got depressed, decided to freeze himself, committed suicide. Incidentally, his suicide really bummed out Penelope, who apparently never got over the fact that what they had was true love, like, for realz. Woah. Your mind is blown, right? All the crazy stuff that happened afterwards, the murder, etc, is Tom's subconscious going wonky. It doesn't have to be like that. They can reboot and start over. Tom decides to wake up from his frozen state to face the real world. To do this, he has to face his biggest fear (of heights) and jump off a building. He does it, of course, but before he does that, he sees Penelope, kisses her, apologizes for getting in that fateful car ride with Cameron Diaz, and re-establishes their undying love for each other. The final shot is of Tom Cruise opening his eyes to a new world.
Now, let's talk about what's wrong with this picture. First off, minor points: why in the fuck is it Penelope's voice on the alarm clock in the first scene? Why did Tom opt to begin his fake life after the night of fake drinking, instead of, oh, I dunno, before he became hideously disfigured? I'll tell you why: because it makes you think that the movie is a total mindfuck. It's disorienting, which makes you think you haven't quite figured it out. Don't worry, you had it right. It's just that well, it's more satisfying to just lose yourself in the dream/reality vertigo and not think about it too much.
In fact, in this respect, perhaps the most philosophically intriguing moment is when we find out for sure that this lucid dream thing is actually real. It would be much more of a mindfuck if the film spent some time playing with this idea, because after all, it's an interesting question - how do you know, for sure, that reality is real and not a dream? The movie wants to play with this question, by having, for instance, moments where we are shown dreams and then jarred into realizing they're not real, but then, at the climactic moment, it makes it rather simple. Because Kurt Russell finds out that he's a figment of Tom's dreaming mind. His identity is defined, largely, by his having two daughters. Whose names he does not know, because apparently, Tom never bothered to think of some. Kurt takes this revelation quite well, limiting himself to merely howling: "Mortality as entertainment? Is this the future?" I guess Tom's subconscious didn't want to contemplate the existential dilemmas of a dream that realizes itself as such. Pity.
What's really interesting in this respect is the love story. The movie seems to really want to be about this amazing love between Tom and Penelope, and her final
but the fact of the matter is, most of that relationship is actually just a very pleasant hallucination. The movie seems to be wanting to compensate for this by claiming that even in reality, Penelope never got over Tom, but you know what? HOW COULD ANYBODY EVER KNOW THAT. Is it perhaps not worth pointing out that both Penelope and Tom were completely wasted during their one night together? I mean, call me cynical, but seriously. So the whole love story, which seems to be the main point of the film, is really just a beautiful dream. I guess it's fitting? Still though, I defy you to watch the movie without falling in love with Penelope. She's one of those fantastic Amelie types, who says profound, whimsical things like "I'll tell you in the next life, when we're both cats" and makes incredibly cute faces.
All in all though, it's an entertaining movie. It's just that I suspect that people remember it as being far more mind-blowing than it really is. It's kind of funny; it's an incredibly rich and complex philosophical problem that is highly simplified but then rendered in a seemingly complex way. Good times. Worthy of watching again, if only to realize how simple and straightforward it actually is.