Mike Cahill’s latest mind-bender, Bliss, is a film that, on the surface, looks like a Matrix-esque sci-fi think-piece that will surely thrill with its many twists and turns. However, as you watch it you eventually realize that nothing is what it seems to be – not within the plot, but outside of it. Much like Steven Knight’s polarizing Serenity, Bliss switches genres before it’s over.
Unfortunately for some, that switching point doesn’t happen midway, but in the 3rd act just as this movie is wrapping up.
There’s no doubt Bliss will be frustrating for some. The film essentially uses one story to convey an entirely different one altogether. Promising a bonkers-cool sci-fi premise only to later discover that this is all just an allegory for something else entirely, certain viewers might feel as though they’re being tricked. Your enjoyment of the film will likely hinge on just how much these reality alterations bother you.
Owen Wilson plays Greg, a recently divorced businessman who gets fired from his job at a customer service agency for never answering his phone. Instead, Greg spends his time drawing pictures of a recurring vision he has of an idyllic place he longs to escape to: a serene homestead with a beautiful woman standing outside by the pool. His firing, let’s just say, doesn’t go well.
After he’s fired he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), a mysterious woman who tells him that most of the people he sees aren’t real – they’re only part of a simulation he’s experiencing. She teaches him how to manipulate these avatars with his mind by ingesting magical yellow crystals, and together they have some fun making people fall down or flip over. She explains to him that his emotions in this world are fabricated and the people he thinks he loves, like his daughter (Nesta Cooper), are all just figments of his imagination.
Eventually Isabel discovers Greg’s drawings and he realizes that the woman in his visions has been her the whole time. They come to the conclusion that while most people stuck in the simulation can’t recall anything from the real world, Greg is somehow remembering his life outside of the simulation, and together they attempt to get back there.
Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins) has made a film operating on several different levels, and we can assume that any one of them are real or imaginary. And depending on how you view the scenario, you can have a different viewing experience than the person next to you. Is this a story about alternate realities? Or simply just an experience of a depressed individual who’s been chewed up and spit out by society the minute he doesn’t play by the rules?
Ultimately. Bliss is a film about finding hope and love; where you can look at all this poverty and despair that’s been accumulated in the world around you, and then try to get to the point where you still want to live in it. The biggest problem here isn’t the filmmaker’s complicated approach at getting to those themes, however, but his refusal to justify these very deep character transformations. Characters come to major realizations, but even after we’re clued in on what’s going on, we look back and realize these epiphanies don’t always become justified within the logic created for this world.
There are some big ideas at play here, and the big twist comes at a point where everything converges, yet there are still two or three details that don’t line up.
Whether it’s character perspective missteps or scenes included for no other reason than to throw us off, Cahill seems more concerned with keeping us guessing than he is in actual storytelling. When we spend too much time trying to figure out what’s happening while its happening that the message gets lost, or worse, the journey to that message comes off as insincere and exploitative.
We often feel a disconnect from our protagonist, which goes against everything this film aims to do. Cahill has crafted a film so the audience will empathize with Greg. Everything the director does – this extreme labyrinthine narrative – is done under the pretense that the viewer should be able to better understand where a person in Greg’s situation is coming from. Yet, to a fault, Cahill keeps us at a distance in order to preserve his twist and never allows for this compelling arc to build organically.
For all intents and purposes, Wilson gives a great performance here. He’s never required to show a huge emotional range, yet he delivers his part in a way that feels real and sustained. Greg is sent through the ringer, yet the choices the actor makes are often the only thing grounding this film and keeping an audience alienated by obtusity still invested in the outcome. Where a lesser actor might over-emote all throughout this hectic story, Wilson maintains Greg’s identity while garnering our investment in the process.
Hayek, on the other hand, isn’t right for the role. The actress’ deficiencies do show through a few times, but it’s more than that. Her character fluctuates between saddening and antagonistic, and we just don’t buy into Hayek as that person. The actress is always a bit too motherly and comforting of a presence to fit into the mold she’s given here.
Honestly, it would have been much more effective had the part been played by, say, Sarah Paulson, or someone who can willingly and believably switch between emotionally sympathetic and chillingly sinister. Salma Hayek only really resonates with the former.
Nonetheless, there’s more to like here than not. Reminiscent of the aforementioned Serenity, or even Dito Montiel’s Man Down (in more ways than one), Bliss is an intriguing ride and a product of a definite creative vision. Sure, things aren’t explained well enough for us, but as much as the director falls in love with ambiguous exposition, at least he presents the information in ways that are visually appealing.
There are moments in Bliss where I found myself on the edge of my seat, and while not all of those moments concluded with the result I expected, it’s easy to respect this unpredictability on some level. Much of our enjoyment comes from the suspense of trying to figure out what’s going on and piecing things together – even if these efforts might only result in disappointment and confusion. This is a movie better enjoyed as an experience than as a conventional movie puzzle. And despite being a letdown for those hoping for a science fiction film, there is still something to appreciate here.