Sci-fi love story Bliss isn't ignorant, but it is humorless and mismatched
Director Mike Cahill's ideas outpace his story about a man realizing life isn't real.
In The Matrix, the machines created a dull existence to keep humans placated. As Agent Smith told Morpheus, the machines made a paradise "where none suffered and everyone would be happy." It was a failure.
Humanity's greatest strength and weakness is skepticism. We never believe anything to be as true as it is good. We are hardwired to call bullshit, even in the face of objective truth.
On Amazon Prime Video, Mike Cahill, director of the sci-fi films Another Earth and I Origins, presents a twist to the "simulation" premise that Matrix did so well in 1999. But this time, in 2021, as much as you want to call bullshit, Cahill refuses to yield. Because in his new movie, Bliss, a dull, stressful existence doesn't keep us numb; it makes us feel something for once.
Streaming now, Bliss is a thoughtful antithesis to today's status quo of dark, hard science fiction. It isn't dreamy, soothing, or uplifting like The Good Place or Amazon's own Upload and Tales From the Loop. Bliss doesn't shy away from hardship; the first 20 minutes play out like a heart-pounding prestige crime thriller, and the climax involves a tense police standoff. But Bliss proposes hardship is that which keeps us alive.
In Bliss, divorced Greg (Owen Wilson) kills his boss by accident. After hiding the body, Greg meets a beautiful bohemian, Isabel (Salma Hayek), who assures him everything is fine because nothing is real. Reality is just a simulation, she tells him, and there are no consequences. As Isabel peels back the curtain on Greg's seemingly false world, his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) attempts to get her father to quit this foolishness.
For the first hour, audiences are keen to call B.S. Even with not-so-subtle hints and newfound telekinesis, Greg — and we as the viewer — first refuses to believe Isabel. Especially when she claims the "simulation" works by inhaling crystals pounded into dust. Inevitably, viewers do get an answer to the question, "Is it real?" But it's impossible not to keep questioning the truth. (This is inevitable fuel for fans to speculate and theorize for however long Bliss is on Amazon's front page.)
That's not to say Bliss is bad or badly made. Bliss is good! It's a love story in sci-fi makeup, and what it lacks in logic, brains, and even a sense of humor, it makes up for in heart and sincerity. Despite starring a known comedic actor, Bliss is devoid of even levity as Owen Wilson puts on an engaging performance as a man either losing his grip or awakening to an enlightened truth. It's just unfortunate Wilson has zero chemistry with Hayek. The two are never convincing as a pair, which gives the movie an uncomfortable, mismatched energy.
Even when Bliss takes a steep left turn, it kindly asks you to go with the flow. Those who do are rewarded with a fulfilling experience, even if it's a badly timed message. In an interview, I asked Cahill how he felt about his film — written and directed before Covid-19 and edited during lockdown orders — at this moment in history. "The relevance was enhanced, I suppose," he told me in a Zoom call. "The idea of people living in their own worlds, I think, that's heightened. We're seeing the effects of that. Divides in society."
Bliss's big message, as told through Greg's journey in and out of an alleged simulation, advocates that living through times of hell is necessary to enjoy moments of heaven. ("You have to know the good to appreciate the bad," Hayek's Isabel says in the movie, mixing the cliché.) That's not wrong or offensive, but it's a tough thing to swallow as we approach one year of a draining pandemic. It isn't Cahill's fault his movie is coming out now, but I'm curious how audiences will respond to Bliss — and ponder how they would have responded literally any other time that isn't now.
Much of Cahill's film is rooted in this germ of an idea: "I wanted to tell a story about the fragility of the human mind," Cahill says. "The people you love may see the world vastly different from you. It can be so extreme. I wanted to shine a light on reaching over to connect, the heartache of futility, the persistence of love, and trying to make a difference. I found that beautiful."
Bliss isn't a political work in an explicit sense (lest you include an endorsement for universal basic income), but I don't think his "Cumbayá" thesis lands like he aimed to. Cahill tells me he sought to make a movie where people are literally in their own world and we all ought to do our part to reach across the aisle to achieve better understanding. Instead, I found greater mileage poking and prodding at Bliss's other messaging. I'm still chewing over Greg's journey. I'm unsatisfied by its conclusion, but I can't say I've forgotten it.
There is another cliché Cahill tells me he rejects: ignorance is bliss. "How do you define bliss?" Cahill asked me, rhetorically. "One of the few things we have control over is what we believe in. What we choose to invest our focus in." Bliss will not leave viewers satisfied with answers, because there are none. There is only what we let ourselves believe. And that's not bullshit.
Bliss is streaming now on Prime Video.