The ending of Vanilla Sky is actually pretty straightforward. Everything that Tech Support says is true. Tom Cruise is having a lucid dream. He did kill himself, sort of. He didn’t kill Sofia. He does have a choice of waking up or continuing the dream. David decides to wake up 150 some years in the future.
What’s less straightforward is this: how much of what we saw was reality and how much was the lucid dream? That’s what I want to explore more, but, first, it’s probably good to explain why the ending is so straightforward.
Alternative theories (skip if you want):
The alternative theories of the ending would be:
1: This isn’t a dream. David has lost his mind. And the board, as Dr. Curtis McCabe tries arguing at the end, is trying to get rid of David in order to take over the company
2: David’s in a coma after the car crash and he’s just imagining everything.
The first was semi-plausible up until the point that Tech Support asks McCabe what the name of his children are and McCabe can’t answer. That puts him clearly in the realm of being a superficial construct of David’s lucid dream. Also, if it was the board trying to get rid of David then the board was woefully underdeveloped. Normally you wouldn’t see a film completely disregard the main antagonists like that. Which leads me to believe that the board wasn’t developed because they were only a red herring to keep us guessing, rather than the true enemies. Also, all the other characters just appear on the rooftop, out of nowhere. Either that’s because David has lost his mind and is seeing things (which could be true) or it is a lucid dream. Given the defeat of McCabe and him not continuing to question the lucid dream theory, it’s definitely a dream. That and David waking up as the final shot of the movie.
This second theory could be true. And it offers a little more hope. Maybe the accident sent him into a coma but his face isn’t as bad as he imagined? At the very least, 150 years probably wouldn’t have passed. Which means Sofia’s still alive and he would still have a chance with her. He’d only have dreamed of the failed date at the club (how embarrassing that was) and all the fallout. My only real reason against this is that it would be a HUGE ask of the audience to build up to this cryogenics/lucid dream climactic rooftop scene where we are told “what really happened” only for none of that to be true and him to have only been in a coma after the accident. Especially to then not show that with the last shot. Like, if this theory were true then we should have gotten something like “he asks what date it was and it’s still 2001 rather than 2151.” As is, we have no legitimate reason to not believe the lucid dream/cryogenics theory isn’t true. There’s only a brief joke about him being in a coma that happens halfway through the movie. But there are close to a dozen references of cryogenics and life extension. The latter outweighs the former. With the joke easily explained as a red herring.
With those major alternative theories out of the way, this leaves only the ending as explained by Tech Support. David opted for a lucid dreaming cryogenic slumber. This theory is supported by the numerous references to cryogenics and life extension that come up in the movie. Like the Benny the Dog subplot/motif. Benny fell into ice, died, but was thawed out and came back to life and is as good as new. So this means that the film actively prepared us for the idea of cryogenics and resurrection. David even had that guitar that had been broken during a show then gifted to David. It was pieced back together in a way that was almost whole again. Which is essentially David’s journey. He’s in this accident, broken, and put back together…kind of.
So the ending is as simple as what we’re told.
Which brings us to the real question. How much of the movie happened in the lucid dream and how much happened in the real world?
What was dream, what wasn’t?
As far as I can tell, all of the film took place in the lucid dream.
A few reasons for this.
When we hear “open your eyes” for the first time, it’s Sofia saying it even though David wouldn’t have known Sophia yet. In the normal world, that would be something beyond explanation. We’d either have to chalk it up to the filmmakers being cute or something metaphysical. Except in Vanilla Sky we have a perfect explanation: it’s part of the dream.
What follows Sofia’s voice saying “open your eyes”? The dream of an empty Times Square, a lonely, abandoned NYC that belongs to David and David alone. This, in a way, foreshadows David’s rooftop conversation with Tech Support. Except the two scenes act as opposites of one another. In the beginning, David is alone, completely at a loss, and on the ground. By the end, he has with him some very important people—Sofia, his best friend Brian Shelby, McCabe, and Tech Support—he has the full context of what’s going on, and is on the rooftop. We could easily argue the roof is symbolic for the “perspective” David now has, and works as a contrast to the confusion he had at the beginning, on ground level.
Lastly. Tech Support says that David opted for the “splice” to occur when he woke up the morning after the club scene. That means that everything after that morning is part of the lucid dream. Except we know that in real life David never murdered Sofia. Which means that in real life that David would never have been talking with McCabe about murder.
That means that, if the first half of the movie had been “real” and outside of the dream, McCabe wouldn’t have appeared in the movie until after the splice. But David’s first conversation with McCabe happens way way way early in the movie. That means we’re getting moments of the lucid dream before the splice point ever took place. That’s either poor editing. Or editing that’s intentionally done to confuse us. Or is absolutely logical because David’s lucid dream has glitched.
Because of that glitch, I think it’s easy to conclude that everything we see in the film is the dream, but that elements of reality have appeared because of the corruption.
There also stood out to me a line in the marketing video for the lucid dream. The narrator says:
Your death will be wiped from your memory. Your life will continue as a realistic work of art, painted by you, minute-to-minute. And you’ll live it with the romantic abandon of a summer day…with the feeling of a great movie, or a pop song you always loved. With no memory of how it all occurred, save for the knowledge that everything simply…improved.
What we see of David’s life in the “real” portion of the film is ridiculously perfect. The banter. How much everyone loves him. His success. It’s to the point where everyone seems kind of…crazy? To the point where I’m not entirely convinced that everything we see is exactly how it was. Rather, some of what we’re seeing has been improved by the lucid dream. By that, I mean, yes, I think David and Brian were friends, and that, yes, David and Sofia had hit it off. But I don’t think the dialogue we hear was verbatim what happened in real life. We’re seeing David’s memory processed through the lucid dream’s romanticizing, so that everything had the feeling of “a great movie or a pop song.”
Based on all of this, I don’t think we ever actually met the real David or the real Sofia or the real Brian or the real Julie. Everyone is a heightened version of themselves, either made perfect by the lucid dream or made into a monster by the “glitch”.
Personally, I think the glitch is the most interesting part of the movie. Tech Support mentions it to David. The dream turned into a nightmare because of David’s subconscious. The pain he felt couldn’t be erased and caused a glitch.
What’s fascinating is that the glitch pretty much manifests in the same way that the subconscious does in Inception. In Inception, we watch as DiCaprio’s pain from his wife’s death keeps manifesting as his wife, Marion Cotillard, who continuously appears and interferes in the heists. She complicates mission after mission. She wants to kill DiCaprio and have him descend into limbo with her to spend eternity there. But all she really is is DiCaprio’s own guilt trying to undermine his logic, emotions, and life. It’s symbolic for how guilt can lead us to depression, to go against our own best interests because we feel a self-loathing.
Likewise, in Vanilla Sky we see that David’s subconscious reacts to the glitch. McCabe, much like Cotillard, is a manifestation of emotion. Though what exactly he represents is tricky. On the one hand, he’s trying to find out the truth of the murder, so forces David to confront what has happened in the “nightmare”. Why did David kill Sofia? On the other hand, McCabe’s completely against the idea of the lucid dream. He’s in disbelief over the Life Extension company. He’s in disbelief of the Lucid Dream. So he’s almost an agent of the Lucid Dream, trying to keep David IN the dream. Except the only reason David comes to confront the dream is because McCabe made him open up about what had happened with “Sofia”. I can’t tell then if McCabe’s purposefully paradoxical or accidentally paradoxical?
There’s a larger discussion to be had on the similarities between the mechanics of Inception and Vanilla Sky, but that’s for another article.
But the glitch opens up this conversation about the subconscious and how the subconscious shapes and impacts our notion of reality. Even when we try to actively deny what happened and try to delude ourselves…the subconscious finds a way to lead us to a moment of truth. It may take 150 years…but eventually…
And that’s probably the best way to look at Vanilla Sky and explain Vanilla Sky. It’s the story of David’s subconscious causing him to confront his heartache and find some sense of catharsis. He tried running away from the reality of his emotions, but the subconscious wouldn’t let him escape. When David finally understands, he asks Tech Support, “And I chose this scenario, didn’t I?” Tech support responds with, “Yes, to face your last remaining fear of heights.”
Vanilla Sky supports the concept that to heal and move forward we need time, introspection, and self-confrontation. It’s not always pretty. It’s not always fun. But it’s the way through the shittiness. If you avoid these things, then you waste time and opportunity. Consequences. Everything can’t always be sweet. You need the sour, too. It’s the only way we learn and grow. Had David not avoided the consequences, maybe he would have find some peace after the accident. Maybe he wouldn’t have driven Sofia away. Maybe he could have had a life with her. To that end, I think Vanilla Sky should remind all of us to do our best at being honest with ourselves, to accept what we can’t change, and to affect what we can.