Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek are certainly giving it their all in this frantic and sloppy simulation from Amazon Studios.
For a film constantly trying to surprise viewers with its seemingly mad-libs format of world-building, it’s odd to see such a mundane story driving Bliss, the latest film from Mike Cahill. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A pretty boring guy named Greg (Owen Wilson) is living a pretty boring life, and let’s just say things never seem to really go his way. But all that changes when he meets a stunningly beautiful woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek), who convinces him there’s much more to life than he previously imagined. It’s the age-old love story ripped straight from the kind of light, Blockbuster rental shelf section circa 1999.
But that’s when the science fiction kicks in. Isabel explains to Greg that his life is a wash because it’s not real. His kids? Not real. His job? Totally fake. They’re actually living in a Matrix-esque simulation, which is filled with NPCs who don’t actually matter. Greg and Isabel, on the other hand, happen to be among the rare few “real” people existing in this sandbox world of dubious origin, which means they also have access to an array of loosely-explained telekinetic powers.
This is the point of no return for Bliss, a film that has so far harvested essentially all of its storytelling from the Wachowski Sisters and Charlie Kaufman to great extent. Cahill, who wrote and directed the film, had plenty of options when it came to redirecting this premise toward something fresher and all his own, as he’s setting up more of a romantic comedy within the backdrop of simulation theory, which genuinely sounds promising and at least slightly different for this kind of vehicle, if not in the same territory as The Truman Show. Instead, Bliss starts opting for something a bit closer to Serenity.
As the film progresses, Isabel walks Greg through streets upon streets of seemingly endless exposition, touring him through a half-baked (and quite honestly offensive) metaphor about slums and mental health, specifically in how their supposed mastery of this simulation would look deranged to the average person, which is what we see through the eyes of Greg’s children, Emily (Nesta Cooper) and Arthur (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who believe Isabel is poisoning their father’s mind against them. Greg, meanwhile, barely registers what is going on beyond a few half-hearted eyebrow raises.
It’s the age-old love story ripped straight from the kind of light, Blockbuster rental shelf section circa 1999.
Eventually, the full truth behind this “world” described by Isabel is revealed, and it doesn’t amount to much beyond a first draft of a sci-fi dystopian novel written by a college sophomore. There are engaging cameos to be had, including Bill Nye and Slavoj Zizek, but they’re played as momentary gags. The final act of the film is really just an extended fetch quest ping-ponging between alternate realities, where Greg and Isabel have to reckon with how these simulations can create false memories. And if you can’t trust your own memories, how do you know anything around you is real at all?
If only Bliss could be as deep and profound as the questions it almost asks. Wilson and Hayek simply don’t have a sturdy script to back up these bold performances, particularly from Hayek, who is forced to make pages of exposition sound far less hackneyed and uninspired than deserved. Wilson is mostly a passive observer, only occasionally checking in to ask pretty crucial questions the audience probably would have asked much earlier. It’s not surprising that Wilson’s character lacks a sense of wonder at everything going around him, because the actual execution of these ideas just doesn’t look or feel all that interesting or expansive.
It’s clear that Cahill wanted to produce an accessible, maybe more lighthearted version of The Matrix with mind-bending characters ripped straight out of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Anomalisa. But where he lands is in a strange purgatory of insipid ideas constantly conflicting with one another until the film’s slow walk to a predictable, albeit emotionally cloying conclusion. Perhaps the best utopia to be gained from Bliss is making it to the end credits without falling asleep, yourself.
Bliss is now available on Amazon Prime.