Directed by Mike Cahill.
Starring Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Ronny Chieng.
A recently divorced man loses his job and subsequently bumps into a woman who claims that the world in which he lives is actually a simulation.
The Matrix, but with Owen Wilson. That’s essentially the pitch at the heart of writer-director Mike Cahill’s new movie Bliss. It’s an intriguing, slick thriller that balances real world social issues with a grab bag of sci-fi concepts in a way that might not make the most of the arguments for which it poses a starting point, but always emerges as an entertaining and nimble tale in which the very notion of reality is malleable.
Wilson plays call centre drone Greg, who has recently divorced from his wife and is concerned about making things awkward at the graduation ceremony of his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper). After an encounter with his boss goes drastically wrong, Greg is fired and spends the rest of the day in a bar. Mysterious patron Isabel (Salma Hayek) approaches Greg and reveals that he is one of very few real people living in a simulated reality, which they can manipulate if they take yellow pills. It’s an impressive concept and I won’t go any further into the plot for the purposes of this review. That’s a qualm not shared by the trailer, which is one of the most spoiler-packed of the last few years.
To begin with, Bliss is in pretty standard territory for this sort of thinky sci-fi, with a ponderous opening voice-over in which Greg pontificates about how he doesn’t know if his mundane world is real. Certainly, he spends a lot of time daydreaming and sketching his dream house. Cahill kicks everything up a gear though when Hayek arrives, with unruly hair and a tapestry of tattoos amid a whirlwind of unpredictable energy. Hayek often thrives when she’s offered the chance to have fun with a role and this is a prime example, with the star tearing into a character who seems to take devilish pleasure in Greg’s confusion.
Wilson fares slightly less well in a more demanding role. He has exactly as much believable bewilderment as you’d expect of him, but the more intricate emotional beats of the movie’s second half don’t land as well. It’s doubly disappointing given that the movie’s storytelling is set just right for Wilson to delve into the darker side of his persona in order to give the smart script a more venomous bite. Bliss is mostly free of Wilson the spaced-out stoner comic, but there’s not much else to replace that shtick.
The movie forefronts a lot of interesting ideas, including a suggestion of a science-induced utopia, only to refuse to fully commit to them. It posits a dream world of universal incomes and opulent automation, leaving human beings free to embrace their passions and pleasures, but stops short of drawing any lessons from that for our own reality outside of the movie. A protest march against inequality plays a key part in the narrative, despite the script’s refusal to ever delve into the issues such an event raises. The film’s ambiguity is often used as a shield to avoid having to address any of the big themes bubbling underneath its narrative.
But there’s considerable style to the piece, with Cahill and cinematographer Markus Förderer modulating lighting and mood to convey the stark differences between different perceptions of reality. Sometimes the film is grey to the point of near-monochrome, while other scenes are bathed in vivid light and liberal flashes of lens flare. Cahill certainly can’t be accused of lacking ambition on the visual front, even if his narrative feels surface level when it has ample opportunity to delve beneath the epidermis of its ideas.
Bliss ultimately emerges as something of a disappointment. It’s an entertaining enough ride, helped along by Hayek’s maelstrom of a performance, but lacks the depth teased by its reality-bending central conceit. All of the stylish ambiguity in the world can’t make up for a movie which, when all is said and done, doesn’t have nearly as much to say as it probably ought to.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.