Mike Cahill's Bliss is a sci-fi oddity about our constant desire for a better life, an effort that mostly results in our inability to appreciate what we have. In the film's opening sequence, we are introduced to Greg Wittle (Owen Wilson), a mid-level office worker in a Kafkaesque corporation called Technical Difficulties. His mind is clearly not on his work, as he spends most of his time in his nondescript gray office making detailed sketches of a lakeside villa and a beautiful woman, images that are inexplicably lodged in his brain. When he is called into his boss's office and unceremoniously fired, the meeting goes awry and ends up with his boss dead from an accidental head injury and Greg propping the body behind the window curtain. He heads across the street to his favorite bar, where he is confronted by a homeless woman named Isabel Clemens (Salma Hayek), who appears to have supernatural powers over everyone around her except Greg. Soon she is telling Greg that the broken, polluted world around them is just a computer simulation and that they have an entirely different life in the "real world."
They don't go there for quite a while, though, instead spending time in the supposed simulation using their "powers" to knock down skaters at a roller rink and bouncing around the city to no apparent purpose other than to burn time before their alternate reality is eventually revealed, which is brighter, sunnier, and decidedly different. In their other existence, Isabel is a brilliant scientist who has developed "The Brain Box," a device that allows people to enter the simulation, the purpose of which is to show people how much worse the world could be and therefore encourage them to appreciate what they have. Greg, it turns out, is Isabel's husband in this world, and the images in his head that he couldn't stop sketching are the house he shares with Isabel and Isabel herself.
There is quite a bit more to the multiple-realities plot, as Greg's twin existence is complicated by his college-age daughter, Emily (Nesta Cooper), with whom he desperately wants to connect. Wilson does a good job of conveying Greg's inherent sadness and desire for human contact and connection, but he is stranded in a film that is much more complicated than it needs to be (the general idea would have made for a potentially great short story). Cahill, who has explored similar terrain in his previous films Another Earth (2011) and I Origins (2014), is nothing if not ambitious, and there is something admirable in his desire to use the sci-fi genre for something more than technological fetishism and action thrills. He is clearly enthralled with ideas, but Bliss turns muddy quickly and never manages to find a coherent tone with which he can engage them. There is a strong emotional undercurrent throughout the film that keeps it mostly together, but its ambiguity and narrative shoddiness constantly trip it up when it should be drawing us in. While there are moments of engagement and some memorable images, in the end Bliss simply doesn't hold together enough to make its ideas-however fascinating-stick.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Amazon Studios
Overall Rating: (2)
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