Review: An Alternate Reality—Or Is It?—in Bliss a Blurry Attempt at Science Fiction

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.

Image credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Amazon Studios

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.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.


  1. Omg I’ve never had a movie demonstrating both mental illness plus drug addiction . They talk briefly about it in the big book of A A. ” then those who are grave with mental illness in which an entire chapter could be dedicated to.” This would be a visual demonstration with variable to be the closest in explanation

  2. I agree. This is very much both mental illness and drug addiction. Which they may have left half alone. But we.. get something out there finally that validates the scary reality it can become and the strength and humility it takes to live in this reality. And so maybe some aren’t at a point of labeled and description with exact but its the seed needed to plant true awareness

  3. Omg I’ve never had a movie demonstrating both mental illness plus drug addiction . They talk briefly about it in the big book of A A. ” then those who are grave with mental illness in which an entire chapter could be dedicated to.” This would be a visual demonstration with variable to be the closest in explanation

  4. It scares me how many reviewers including Steve completely missed how this film is about drug addiction and mental illnesses. It’s like these reviewers did chores around the house while this film played in the background. The opening scene literally shows the character addicted to pain meds. It’s fine if the “critic” didn’t enjoy the film for what it was but reading this sorry excuse of an article you can tell he wasn’t paying attention or the symbolism went right over his head.

  5. This is definitely about untreated mental illness, drug abuse and homelessness, not a sci-fi pic. If it would let you know that from the beginning things would make more sense which can get frustrating while watching it. On the other hand I think the author wanted the viewer to get a taste of how much the narrator can’t discern reality from fiction in his own mind.

  6. This is not a science fiction movie, and I can’t figure out why so many reviewers think it is. This is a movie about drug abuse and mental illness.

    Isabel and Greg are both homeless and live under the bridge. They are also both addicts, and likely suffer mental illness. As it seems to be told from Greg’s point of view, it cannot be trusted, as Greg is an unreliable narrator. The whole movie seems to be a drug fueled psychosis, including his job (plush, cushy office? I don’t think so) and events related to Isabel. The only thing that seems to be real in this movie are his children – a daughter who loves her father and wants him to get the help he needs, and a son who is tired of the games played by drug addicts and has surrendered his father to his addiction and mental illness.

Comments are closed.

Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!