Alejandro Amenabar was another one of those film school drop outs who said “screw it” and began writing, producing, directing and staring in his own films in the mid-90s. There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of him because he went to school at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid instead of UCLA or whatever the hot New York film school is this season. (Really should ask my New York friends about that at some point when I start caring.)
Amenabar’s first movie, Thesis, was about a Universidad Complutense student Nancy Drewing her way towards a snuff film ring. Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos) is his sophomore movie, the kind that proves you can avoid the stereotypical sophomore slump if you’re smart and/or talented enough. Not only is Open Your Eyes better than Thesis, it’s more interesting and seems a bit more personal. As you’d expect from any movie born out of a flu-based fever dream.
Open Your Eyes opens with our protagonist, Cesar (Eduardo Noriega) awakening to a deserted city. Except this turns is all dream. In the “real” world, Cesar’s the comfortably-well off son of a dead restaurant chain owner, with plenty of spendin’ money to throw around. Along with the three cars and the swanky Madrid apartment, this affords him the chance to sleep with his choice of beautiful women, much to the envy of his best friend, Pelayo (Fele Martínez):
Cesar: You’re handsome.
Pelayo: I’m acceptable, when you’re not beside me.
Cesar: You’re like anorexics. They insist they’re fat and end up crazy.
Pelayo: When some girl ties you down, the rest of us will get a chance.
Except this is all a flashback. In the really “real” world, Cesar’s a criminal in a psychiatric hospital, charged but awaiting trial and telling his story to court appointed-shrink Antonio (Chete Lera). Maybe Cesar can get off on an insanity plea if he’ll just tell the damn story all the way to the end. In a linear fashion, please. Antonio needs to hear it all before he can hand down the diagnosis. Apparently Cesar killed someone and now chooses to hide his face with a prosthetic mask, believing himself horribly disfigured no matter who insists otherwise.
After some belligerence, we and Cesar flash back to his last birthday party, where Our Hero tries (and fails) to avoid Nuria (Najwa Nimri), the girl he’s been sleeping with until now (“now” being the first fifteen minutes of the movie). In typical Young, Rich Asshole fashion, Cesar avoids her by cozying up to Sofia (Penelope Cruz), the girl Pelayo brought to his birthday party, causing some inevitable friction between the friends. After hitting the booze to drown out the fact he’ll always play second-fiddle to his friend, Pelayo storms out, leaving Cesar to talk his way back to Sofia’s place.
Just a memo to all you guys out there: if you want to convince your friends they could be just as successful with the ladies as you are, it’s best not to steal their dates. The only thing keeping Cesar from engaging the Cruz Control is Sofia’s concern for Cesar and Pelayo’s friendship. You see why I can’t call him Our Hero? He’s a jerk-off who can’t appreciate what he has. If this movie didn’t spent its entire two hour length fucking with him, I might not have enjoyed our time together nearly as much.
The next day, Cesar makes the inexplicable choice to get into a car with Nuria when he finds her parked outside his apartment (nope – nothing creepy going on here). Nuria promptly rams the car into a wall, killing herself and destroying Cesar’s face (and only his face – that’s some precision car crashing, there) beyond the scope of modern reconstructive surgery.
Except our director cuts straight from the car crash to a scene where a normal looking Cesar meets a still-hot-as-ever Sofia in the park. By now, we’re thirty minutes in, and I’m already starting to question the line between reality and the “dream” world, with a growing suspicion in my gut that the two are not as distinct as (say) Cesar might believe. Open Your Eyes is that kind of movie, playing in the same sandbox as several Philip K. Dick stories I could think of, particularly from his middle period when he started letting speed write novels for him. There’s this one novel – Ubik, from 1969 – about a bunch of people who end up trapped in a dream state after their terminally injured bodies are shoved into cryostasis to keep their hearts and minds functioning. It includes a supporting character who can warp reality by retroactively undoing past events with her psychic powers…just because that’s how Philip K. Dick rolled.
Open Your Eyes is like that. Either you roll with it, or get out of its way, because it’s not gonna stop to explain things to the halt. This makes it abysmally hard to talk about, because I don’t really want to talk about it. But I want you to go out and see this flick, so I have to tell you why, which means I have to talk about it, if only in the most oblique terms. Open Your Eyes is a film that puts you on guard, since nothing screams “unreliable narrator” quite as loudly as a flashback, especially when they’re told to cops or psychologists. Combine that with Cesar’s repeated false-awakenings – which grow to have more of an effect on reality than he’d like, with tragic consequences – and you’ve got a story with more twists than a bent straw, hauling you through its every twist thanks to all the time spent strapped to this one masked man’s back.
What the hell, right? Fifteen years of reviewers have already spoiled the hell out of this thing, so why am I being coy about it? Because I don’t have to contribute to all that. I’d rather interpret this dream Alejandro Amenabar made for us. It’s full of symbols, but I’ll spoil the film if I start describing them and become exactly the kind of Idea Lepidopterist I despise. And since I want you to run out and find this movie as soon as humanly possibly, it’s better to risk boring you by talking about the themes of Open Your Eyes rather than risk spoil the film by talking about its specifics.
Themes like vanity. Before Nuria’s attempted murder, we see Cesar, all suave and self-effacing, taking his good looks and their attendant privileges for granted, like any privileged sod. Afterward, he’s so desperate for Sofia’s attention he starts stalking her during her day job as a park-based mime. (Even stoops to put money in her mime-hat, and you should never give money to mimes. They can’t all be Penelope Cruz, and the non-Penelope Cruz mimes don’t need the encouragement.) After loosing his face, go figure, Cesar turns into a embittered, mood-ruining douche, jealous of the very best friend whom he so casually cockblocked, since Pelayo’s kept Sofia company through all this madness…and ain’t irony a bitch? Drunk and alone, Cesar passes out in the street…
And that’s all I’m going to say. There’s over half a movie to go, and it’s the interesting half.
I was surprised by the discipline in this, its director’s second feature. Not many people go straight to the reality warping, but Amenabar pulls it off leaves it hanging casually by his side until you’re lulled into a false sense of security…and then he smacks you in the face with it. He’s not trying to be flashy, he’s not trying to be cute, and he’s not trying to give anything away until he’s good and ready. This isn’t about stylistic technique: it’s about the damn story, and it’s about telling that damn story so well, I didn’t figure out the twist until we were twenty minutes from the ending. That’s something, right? (Around here, buddy, it’s a lot.)
And more than anything, Amenabar chose some great actors to carry this story through all its twists, up to and including the end. Noriega’s Cesar may be a hypocritical rich asshole, but he’s a believably hypocritical rich asshole, and I wound up feeling sorry for him in spite of the constant urge to punch him in his new scars. He’s petty, casually cruel, and ends up a broken, self-pitying monstrosity…but damnit, it’s not like he was actively evil. A Lothario, sure…but did he deserve a partial face-amputation? (Actually, he might have if Sofia hadn’t successfully fought him off during their One Night Together. Never rub another man’s rhubarb.)
Cruz infuses Sofia with a feisty life that almost makes her side project as a mime interesting, and the makes the rest of her even more so. Despite being the Object of Affection, Sofia’s a better love interest than the thousands of cardboard standies dotting Hollywood’s productions, with a clear sense of what she wants and how much shit she’ll put up with, no matter how much of a face you have. Martínez’s Pelayo is every rich douchebag’s dejected wingman throughout time, either getting his sweet revenge or tossed unceremoniously by the wayside of his best friend’s great love story (depending on which dream-reality we’re in at the moment). No matter who’s dream we’re in, the chemistry between everyone and the strong script at their disposal keep the characterization consistent and movie enjoyable. I love watching Cesar suffer. I love watching Pelayo bitch him out for not appreciating what he has. I love watching Sofia bitch Cesar out for letting his dick hamstring his conscience. And her occasional habit of miming in the nude. I love that all these things are contained within the same film: a sci-fi/murder mystery/love drama…with dream sequences. And reality warping. And I Am Legend riffs.
That scattershot nature might scare off those who insist their films be one thing and one thing only, remaining safe within the confines of audience expectations. Abre los ojos doesn’t give a fuck about your expectations. This film isn’t a straight line, it’s a puzzle that demands active audience members. The fun of a first viewing comes from figuring out how all these weird little pieces fit together. The fun of a second viewing comes from seeing them all fall into alignment like the components of a Transformer.
If I had a complaint it would be that, after all the build up we’ve been through, any conclusion could potentially come off as an unsatisfying cop-out. This conclusion, in particular, smacks of the worst cop-outs in late-90s sci-fi. But instead of pretentiously insisting that my films arise ex nihilo I’m going to praise Open Your Eyes for setting the ending up in under thirty minutes before hiding it in plain sight for the rest of the film. I swear, I didn’t guess it until the end, and when’s the last time that honestly happened…? I can’t remember, myself…and that’s terrifying.
So if you have the time, patience, or taste for some existential terror, track Abre los ojos down and see what a sci-fi movie can be when spectacle doesn’t crowd out the idea that gave it shape. I love how what little spectacle there is here only comes forward to serve those ideas, distracting you from them with sly, slight-of-hand storytelling even as it waves them right under your nose. The soundtrack up and tells you…well, I don’t want to tell you what the soundtrack tells you, except to say, “Good things.” You know I don’t mention soundtracks unless they stand out.
Because this is a good movie that deserves more than a spot on the always-getting-longer list of Sundance award winners no one really remembers anymore. Or the not-as-long-but-even-more-depressing list of foreign-language films inexplicably remade into English by a Hollywood so desperate for “new” ideas it’s started strip-mining them out of other countries like a fucking aluminum manufacturer. Open Your Eyes deserves to be seen, taken in, and remembered on its own terms, as a piece of 90s sci-fi that tries to ask questions and explore characters. In other words, a piece of 90s sci-fi that doesn’t outright suck.