I’ve liked the two films director Mike Cahill made in collaboration with actress and co-writer Britt Marling, Another Earth and I Origins. His latest work, Bliss, marks a departure from working with Marling but a continuation into his examination of blurry science fiction that seems to be set in the very near future. This time around, Cahill examines the possibility that we’re all living in a construct, an artificial reality set up by scientists to allow people to test drive the life of an unfortunate—someone poverty stricken, a substance abuser, etc.—to make them feel better about their own existence in the “real world.” Rich people, I swear.
The film opens with Greg (Owen Wilson) getting fired from his job by his boss (Steve Zissis), whom he then accidentally kills. He manages to cover up the death in a very funny way, but he bolts out of the building and into a nearby bar, where he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), who recognizes him as someone from the real world and not this artifice they are currently existing in. She proves that by waving her hands around a bit, and showing that she has power over every person in the bar; she even clears up that little murder situation with a carefully opened window in Greg’s former office building. Isabel takes different colored pills to increase her state and invites Greg to do the same. Being a former drug addict himself, he’s hesitant but game since he doesn’t see this as addictive behavior.
It turns out Isabel lives among the homeless under the highway and has fairly substantial digs where she hides the technology she uses to move back and forth between the real world and this virtual one. But Greg is haunted by aspects of his life that he’s convinced are real, like the fact that he has two grown children, Emily (Nesta Cooper) and Arthur (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). Emily very much wants to reconnect with her father, but only after he’s gotten his life back together. But because of Isabel’s ranting, which he believes, he’s beginning to take less of an interest in his kids, who he’s growing to be convinced aren’t real.
Eventually Isabel gathers enough special pills to transport them to the world that controls ours, and it’s a virtual paradise in which Hayek is a scientist, still running tests on this technology but convinced these jaunts are making people in this world feel better about themselves and their environment. As you may have guessed, the big mystery of Bliss is “Is any of this real?” Is Isabel a kook, or are her theories about different planes of existence genuine? I was always pretty much convinced of one potential outcome, but it is fascinating watching these two personable actors get to try on different types of roles, especially Hayek who zig-zags between crazed homeless woman and brilliant scientist. It’s a wild performance that is captivating and probably better than this listless movie deserves.
When Isabel and Greg are together and figuring out their situation, the movie works beautifully and in interesting ways, but when we push too deep into Greg’s personal life or anything outside of this couple, I lost interest. I realize that Greg is meant to be somewhat adrift and confused at first, but eventually he morphs back into a standard-issue Owen Wilson character who wants to understand, even as he naturally drifts into goofball mode. The film is a bit of a romantic comedy with a sprinkle of science fiction and a dash of a statement about mental illness, and none of these really got fleshed out enough to captivate me fully. As with other works by Cahill, there are interesting ideas behind all of them, but in the case of Bliss, there’s nothing to pull it together and make it feel like anything beyond new-age junk science.
The film is now available on Amazon Prime.
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