Bliss (United States, 2021)

February 05, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bliss Poster

Bliss is one of those Twilight Zone/Outer Limits-type stories that, when presented at a high level, sounds compelling. With its blend of existential science fiction and character-based romance, it would seem to be as close to a can’t-miss premise as one can imagine yet, despite that, it somehow does miss – and by a wide margin. Maybe it’s a case of a filmmaker biting off more than he can chew. Or maybe it’s that the plot doesn’t do the premise any favors. Or maybe it’s that there’s too much unresolved, just outside the frame of the camera, that makes us wish Mike Cahill had found the budget for a mini-series.

It’s strange how reading about something can be so much different that watching it. Owen Wilson plays Greg, a down-on-his-luck worker who works at a tech call center that offers lots of excuses but no real solutions. Because Greg isn’t good at his job, whatever that may be, he is fired. However, before his meeting with his boss ends, there’s a bit of a tussle and Greg ends up the only one alive in the office. So he does what any self-respecting drone would do – hides the body and heads across the street to a bar for a stiff drink. While there, he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), who claims that she and Greg are soulmates. What’s more, they’re the only “real” humans in a weird sort of virtual reality. She proves her point by ingesting a crystal then using the ensuing “powers” to save Greg from being arrested for manslaughter. She then invites her bemused new acquaintance to join her in world-hopping. Along the way, he learns a little about his backstory and why he feels compelled to doodle images of an observatory and a palatial estate. He also discovers that reality is overrated, especially when it threatens to erase his beloved daughter, Emily (Nesta Cooper), from existence.

One of the most dangerous rabbit holes for a movie like this – one that’s more fantasy than hard-core sci-fi – is an attempt to go too deeply into the mechanics of the situation. Take Groundhog Day, for example. It never attempted to explain the situation – it simply let it play out. A similar argument could be made for Cahill’s own Another Earth. In Bliss, however, there’s a long tutorial about the importance of the crystals – blue vs. yellow, swallowing vs. snorting. I suppose the intention with this is world-building but the truth of what’s happening (that Greg and Isabel are running around in an ultra-detailed computer-generated simulation) renders all of that exposition meaningless.

Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek have no chemistry whatsoever, which is an issue because these are supposed to be star-crossed lovers. For his part, Wilson wanders through the part appearing dazed, baffled, or both. Although that kind of performance works early in the film, it ceases to be effective once Greg has supposedly awakened. Hayek, seemingly recognizing that the movie needs an injection of energy that her co-star isn’t providing, frequently goes over-the-top.

From time-to-time, Bliss provides hints of its thematic intentions but the results are too muddled for them to leave an impression. It’s a little like the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” about what happens when people rely more on living in a virtual simulation than the real world. However, while “The Cage” argued strongly in favor of the flesh-and-blood existence being the most important, Bliss seems to reach the opposite conclusion. At the center of the movie’s confusion is Greg’s daughter, who isn’t real but means too much to him to let go. The movie tries to follow that thread but never makes it clear whether Greg’s obsession with the girl is laudable or ruinous and the ending, which is intended to provide a semblance of closure, ends up being head-scratching.

(If you’re still intrigued, this is available on Amazon Prime so, if you have the service, all you have to lose is a couple hours of time.)

Bliss (United States, 2021)

Director: Mike Cahill
Cast: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper
Screenplay: Mike Cahill
Cinematography: Markus Forderer
Music: Will Bates
U.S. Distributor: Amazon Prime
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2021-02-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Science Fiction
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1