In coming up with his own science-fiction utopia, 41-year-old filmmaker Mike Cahill turned the monsters of classic sci-fi into humanity's last hope.
"I thought, if I'm going to create a utopia, let me lean into things that are portrayed in cinema as evil and show them as triumphs of human innovation," Cahill tells Inverse.
The results of Cahill's experimentation are seen in his third feature movie, Bliss, which follows unhappy, divorced Greg (Owen Wilison) and a beautiful stranger, Isabel (Salma Hayek) who tells him the world is just a computer simulation. Turns out, she's right. Or is she? (Spoilers ahead!)
Upon exiting the simulation and awakening in the "real world," Greg finds a utopia beyond his wildest dreams. Besides the fact that he lives in a beautiful Mediterranean villa with his wife Isabel, Greg — who suffers from unusual memory loss as a result of the simulation — is informed exactly how the entire world has become a paradise.
As Isabel explains, three catalysts allowed the world to achieve harmony: Automation, synthetic biology, and lucrative asteroid mining that afforded a universal basic income (UBI) of $500,000 per year for every person on Earth.
“Automation has its pros and cons.”
They also tend to pose dangers in our real world. Automation's benefits, like innovations for new kinds of work, may not be apparent for two whole generations while new technology continues to make new jobs obsolete. Meanwhile, synthetic biology is seen by many as a necessary solution for future famine in the form of genetically enhanced plants, but the same technology is also seen as a top bioterror threat by the U.S. Defense Department.
This is why Cahill felt Bliss could, and maybe should, be different.
"Automation is killer robots, synthetic biology is creating zombies, and asteroid mining destroys the world," Cahill says. "But the fact is, these are innovations done by some of the most brilliant scientists on Earth. And they're real. Automation has its pros and cons. Synthetic biology has a lot of pros. And asteroid mining? Floating around the Earth are seven trillion dollar rocks that possess metals that are useful for things we need."
Cahill admits all this world-building of Bliss is nothing more than "wallpaper" for his story, which is really about "the fragility" of the human mind. "It is besides the point in the movie," he says of these tantalizing sci-fi concepts.
Nevertheless, could the ideas in Bliss provide a road map to peace in our real world? Cahill, who is as much an idealist as his movie, says it isn't as easy as it sounds. (Good luck on getting billions of people to agree on a single vision.) What the director is more confident in, however, is that his specific utopia might unlock a new type of human potential.
"If humans were free to pursue their passions, we can come up with a world [that can] flourish and thrive," Cahill says.
In Bliss, Hayek's Isabel says that eye-watering universal income (I could not confirm if Cahill was #YangGang) and mass automation allowed all people to pursue two things in particular: Art and science.
"Art is the discovery of the human soul and spirit, and science is discovering the nature of reality," Cahill says. "Those things should be prized."
Surprisingly, his own movie doesn't exactly agree.
Bliss's sci-fi twist hinges on the idea that Isabel has engineered an immersive virtual reality to simulate hardship, struggle, and distress. Why? Because the real world had become a numbing paradise. Isabel tells Greg in the movie, "You have to know the good to appreciate the bad." It's an intentional mix-up by Cahill to mirror Greg's arc in the movie.
"It's the old cliché, you have to know hunger to taste the juice of the apple," Cahill says. "What's going on here is a man who is chasing paradise or numbness, but his journey leads him to a point where he is no longer chasing paradise. He loves the chaos. He loves the noise."
It might seem like mixed messaging on the part of Bliss to present an appealing utopia only to champion the grime and grit of our real, not-so-blissful world. But that was never the point of Cahill's movie. Rather, it's one person's journey to realize what utopia means to them alone.
Or, in the director's own words: "To fall in love with that which has been causing struggle is a beautiful story to me."
Bliss is streaming now on Prime Video.