Bliss is the first film from writer-director Mike Cahill in roughly seven years. His previous features, 2014’s I Origins and 2011’s Another Earth, explored concepts of science and philosophy, with Cahill weaving larger ideas about the universe through his earthbound stories about loss, regret and hope. Bliss continues Cahill’s storytelling interests, but idea-wise, it’s wildly unfocused. The sci-fi drama starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek is at best baffling, and at worst, misguided.
Wilson plays Greg Wittle, a daydreaming office worker dealing with a recent divorce and a possible pain pill addiction. On the day he’s fired from his dreary job, Greg meets the enigmatic Isabel (Hayek) at a dive bar across the street from his former office. Isabel informs Greg that they are two of roughly a handful of “real people” trapped in a Matrix-style simulation. By consuming the bright yellow crystals contained in Isabel’s amulet necklace (the amulet is the size and shape of a prescription bottle), the pair exhibit telekinetic powers.
While Greg hangs out with Isabel in her camp on the banks of the L.A. river, Greg’s daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) is trying to find him. Emily is concerned that Greg’s losing his grip on reality, not only because of the cool new abilities he thinks he has, but because his dropping out of her life is consistent with an apparent history of addiction. Greg’s growing confusion about the state of the world is complicated further when Isabel takes him out of the simulation and shows him the “real world,” a sun-drenched intellectual paradise that reflects Greg’s own dreams.
The idea at the heart of Cahill’s script is interesting enough, even if it isn’t new. The way it intertwines with an addiction metaphor is a concept that, if done properly, is worth pursuing. However, Bliss becomes so enamored with the minutiae of its worlds that it loses focus on the kind of story it wants to tell. It’s uncertain if Greg’s experiences with Isabel are delusions brought on by drug addiction, or if they’re real. We spend enough time with supporting characters in both presented worlds to suggest they’re equally plausible. This doesn’t spark further consideration so much as it muddies the narrative and its overall themes.
Similarly, Cahill’s vague consideration of the current state of our world feels underdeveloped in a way that takes any potential power out of his message. Apart from his addiction and the larger effects of it (which are mentioned but barely addressed), Greg’s main problem is a general sense of ennui. The world he inhabits is unpleasant, but the specific issues–for instance, global warming or racism–are never directly named. We’re likely supposed to imply those societal ills, but given the hyper-specific social climate of the last year, the result here feels platitudinal.
Bliss points at some high-minded intellectual ideas, but can’t seem to organize them in a way that creates a compelling arc for its protagonist, or the characters surrounding him. The central metaphor is deadened by the dozens of competing themes surrounding it, which eventually lead to a kind of inspirational meme-style sincerity that feels out of touch. It’s a straight white male take on striving for a better world, one unsurprisingly tailored to its main character’s desires–clean, bright, heterosexual and European.
“Bliss” streams Friday on Amazon Prime Video.