In the way 1997 saw the release of two competing volcano movies ("Dante's Peak" and "Volcano"), and 1998 saw the release of three meteor movies ("Deep Impact", "Armageddon", and the straight-to-video cheapie "Tycus"), 1999 could have been considered the year of the virtual reality flick, with four such films bowing into theatres. "The Matrix" was probably the best remembered, combining Hong Kong/anime action with an intriguing sci-fi premise. David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ", despite its examination of the concept of virtual reality in the context of interactive entertainment, stumbled towards the end by falling into a contrived and cliched ending. "The Thirteenth Floor", the misbegotten son of "Independence Day" director Roland Emmerich, was unceremoniously dumped into theatres after numerous delays and was quickly capsized in the wake of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace".
However, the most intriguing entry into the virtual reality genre that year would probably have to be "Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos)", a Spanish film from 1997 that caused a stir at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and saw a limited release in the spring of 1999. Yet pigeonholing this sophomore effort from director Alejandro Amenabar into the same league as "The Matrix" and "The Thirteenth Floor" would probably be a disservice. "Open Your Eyes" is more of a haunting amalgam of romance, morality tale, and psychological drama that toys with the meaning of consciousness and identity, presenting an ever-deepening enigma that unfolds in unexpected and genuinely surprising ways.
The story is told in flashback through the eyes of Cesar (Eduardo Noriega), a handsome but self-absorbed young man living in Madrid. Thanks to a sizable inheritance bequeathed to him by his deceased parents, Cesar spends his days frolicking as a playboy, priding himself on never having slept with the same woman twice. Cesar's latest conquest is Nuria (Najwa Nimri), who proves more persistent than his usual one-night stands, and refuses to be blown off so easily. During a birthday celebration held in his honor, Cesar's is introduced to the comely Sofia (Penelope Cruz of "Twice Upon a Yesterday") by his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martinez of "Lovers of the Arctic Circle"). Despite Sofia's involvement with Pelayo, Cesar charms the young woman during the party, much to his best friend's chagrin, and winds up spending the night at her apartment.
Burning with jealous rage from her rejection, Nuria catches Cesar on his way home the next morning and asks him to go for a drive. Cesar agrees, but he realizes too late that it is part of a murder-suicide bid-- Nuria slams the gas pedal, driving the car off a cliff, killing herself and leaving Cesar horribly disfigured. Unfortunately, even with all his wealth, Cesar's face is beyond surgical repair, and he chooses to hide his twisted features behind an emotionless mask. Cesar also finds that the world around him has grown increasingly cold, as he becomes estranged from his friends, including Pelayo and Sofia. Cesar seems fated to fade away into loneliness and obscurity.
But then, almost overnight, things start looking up for Cesar. Sofia declares her love for him, despite of his disfigurement, while the plastic surgeons at the hospital come up with a new surgical technique that will completely restore his good looks. Once again, Cesar's life is perfect-- or so it seems. Unfortunately, Cesar also becomes increasingly haunted by strange hallucinations of his face reverting back to its disfigured state, and by visions that Nuria is still alive, both of which send him into a series of increasingly agitated fits of rage. What is real and what is illusion? Is Cesar awake, or is he dreaming? And what is really happening to him?
Everything that happens in this film is there for a reason, and together they form a complex intellectual puzzle that keeps audiences enthralled with an ever-expanding mystery. But unlike other films that have characters straddling the fine line between reality and illusion ("The Game" comes to mind), "Open Your Eyes" maintains the consistency of its internal logic throughout the story, right up to its final moments when the 'big reveal' is made and all is made clear. Like last year's "The Sixth Sense", the payoff at the end of the film is both satisfying and thought provoking, and will probably spur a second viewing.
One of the reasons why "Open Your Eyes" works so well is because of the compelling performances from its two leads, who provide some emotional depth to the proceedings. As the film's tortured hero, Eduardo Noriega does a superb job expressing the misery, anguish, rage, and bewilderment that his character experiences as he tries to come to grips with two diametrically-opposed versions of reality. The other stunning performance of "Open Your Eyes" comes from Penelope Cruz, who is a joy to watch as she offers two differing versions of the same character yet still makes Sofia worthy of audience sympathy.
"Open Your Eyes" may lack the splashy action sequences or special effects of "The Matrix", may not have the incredible set pieces of "The Thirteenth Floor", and may not be as media savvy as "eXistenZ", but it is still a memorable entry into the virtual reality genre-- my only regret is that I didn't have the opportunity to see it sooner. With the minimal use of lavish production values, and focusing instead on strong characterizations and a fascinating story, "Open Your Eyes" is a fantastic and thought-provoking foray into the nature of consciousness and the meaning of memory.