Mike Cahill’s filmography of high-concept sci-fi has perhaps straddled my expectations so high for Bliss that’s a towering disappointment of reality contemplation. The big ideas are there, the existential questioning is present, and the mind-bending aspects are oozing throughout. And yet the film becomes so sadly lost in the clouds of its thematic edge that it loses any sense of grounding, meandering around with talk of superpowers and mental landscapes.
There are notable shades of The Matrix in how the film opens for the down-on-his-luck Greg Wittle (Owen Wilson). He’s divorced, distracted at work, and has recently lost his job. He may even be headed to jail after accidentally killing his boss. Into his life comes the mysterious woman of Isabel (Salma Hayek). She lays a big bomb on him that the world he lives in is a mere simulation and she can prove it. She manipulates people with a mere flick of her hand, altering everything from bartenders tripping to opening windows. Even more impressive, she reveals that Greg can do it too. And that’s enough for Greg to realize he’s in a simulated reality, slowly shirking his life to go along with Isabel and find a way out of it.
Unlike The Matrix, however, the world outside the simulation is not a robotic wasteland. Rather, it’s a perfect paradise where the issues of capitalism and inequality have been eradicated. Thanks to life-changing inventions, people in this world can pursue any artistic or scientific they wish, with one of them having been created by Greg. Isabel is also hoping to develop a scientific discovery as well involving the simulation. All the while, Greg questions just what is real anymore, especially since getting to this paradise requires snorting gems into your nose.
Bliss is a film far too ambiguous for its own good. On a surface level, I can appreciate how believable it wants to make the opposing worlds seem that Greg never seems sure what is real or just a hallucination. Are the superpowers they take on with the aid of orange rocks real or fake? Are the people in each reality real or fake? The paradise reality, of course, is a tougher sell considering the likes of Bill Nye and Slavoj Zizek show up to rub intellectual elbows. Although I must admit there’s a surreal wonderment for the bizarre scene of a ghostly Slavoj Zizek talking about how much hell is a stupid concept. Is Greg dead or is Zizek able to transcend realities?
I’m not so much miffed that the film waffles on just what is Greg’s reality as much as it doesn’t settle on an arc for him. His dreary world of working a job he hates finds him struggling to connect with his graduating daughter, who seems to go between realities as well (maybe?). The ultimate resolve in his own world is that he doesn’t recognize her as someone he needs to let her into his life. But she’s such a bookended character that this resolution is more inexplicable than anything. How can we feel for her when Greg spends most of the movie having relaxing days at a pier and engaging in wild evening sex with Isabel?
The film even writes itself into a corner to make Greg go back to the depressing life he left behind. Why would he go back? Everything seems perfect. Well, apparently he’s become infected with some reality-bleeding disease or whatever that requires more simulation drugs to fix it. It’s a convoluted excuse to make Greg question his realities simply because the one in paradise is too good to exit. There are also a lot of weird rules about how the orange gems give you powers and the blue rocks can take you out of reality. But you need a certain amount of rocks to do either and it seems that the world itself only has a few rocks on hand. The scientists can apparently generate fake people for this world but generating the drugs within is somehow too tough a task.
I wouldn’t be questioning any of the mechanics of this world if only it wasn’t so unfocused in its freewheeling of ideas that never combine into much anything than fragmented concepts. But Bliss feels as lost as the central character trying to find some meaning to any of this, darting between superpowers, drugs, virtual reality, and scientific discovery. Nothing ever feels grounded in this story that the brain is going to spend more time munching on the flawed intricacies than anything the film is trying to say about our mental perceptions of the world.