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The concept of our reality being nothing more than a simulation is catnip for writers and filmmakers to tell stories of blurred lines between beautiful fantasy and harsh truth. Putting that sort of project in the hands of writer/director Mike Cahill feels like an even more appropriate fit, as films like Another Earth and I Origins have allowed his creative spirit to dig deeper into the human experience, using science-fiction concepts as powerful tools of examination. Despite such a promising concept, and a fantastic pedigree that is delivered by Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson as its two leads, Bliss only scratches the surface of its ambitious tale, leaving more questions than answers in its wake.
Bliss opens with our protagonist Greg (Owen Wilson) drawing familiar sights from his active imagination, with varied locations and a mysterious woman making up the portfolio strewn across his desk. But in a matter of minutes, he loses his job, accidentally murders his boss, and finds out that Isabel (Salma Hayek), the woman of his literal dreams, actually exists outside of his sketches. It’s in the aftermath of all this that Isabel tells Greg that his world is not as real as he thinks, sending Bliss’ leads down a rabbit hole of crystalized drugs, a complex simulated world, and a very wary Bill Nye.
Bliss, while working with a very familiar idea, does try to put a new spin on a familiar concept.
There’s nothing new in the choice of whether to stay in a simulation or to transition to reality that Bliss presents in its plot, but there’s a pretty exciting decision that Mike Cahill makes when attempting to use the concept to a new and interesting extent. For once, the existence of a simulated reality is turned on its head, thanks to Bliss turning the tables on why this world exists in the first place. The more mundane and depressing dimension is presented as a fabrication.
Starting with some lighthearted romantic comedy vibes, and a dash of what feels like superpowered abilities that manipulate how this simulation works, Bliss descends into more serious and puzzling matters. A familiar choice has to be made, but Greg’s choice is upended by some serious implications, and complemented by visual flare that would have been benefited by a tighter story.
Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek make the limited scope of Bliss’ big idea intriguing to follow.
Another huge difference when comparing Bliss to many of the other stories dealing with trying to escape or remain inside a simulation is the fact that it takes an underwhelmingly limited approach to what could be a story of unlimited imagination. Little details here and there play with the audience’s mind, but in a film where an entire sequence is dedicated to knocking over an full roller rink of NPCs, Bliss could have dreamed a little bigger when showing off its fabricated reality.
For as boxed in as Bliss may feel at times, the performances of Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek fir their roles well. As one of his most subdued characters, the troubled Greg allows Wilson to be charming and easy to get along with, while showing he has fallen quite far in life. Embodying Isabel’s obsessions and eccentricity with much zest, Hayek compliments the depths that her co-star plumes in Bliss, as her quest to better humanity through her work in simulations has the audience questioning her every move, right up until the final set-piece.
While Bliss has an unlimited imagination, the scope of the actual movie is frustratingly limited.
Sometimes a little ambiguity in a movie like Bliss can make a huge impact, as reality and fiction sometimes come to unanswered conclusions. There’s a balance that has to be struck though, as an open-ended finale with too little information will send the audience home scratching their heads for all the wrong reasons. Obviously, a two worlds scenario has to end with a character choosing one over the other for personal reasons, but the reasoning is where conversations can be born or movies can die. While offering some lightly entertaining material that question reality and a person’s place in the world, Bliss leaves too many variables unaccounted for when all is said and done.
The work that is put into this scenario comes off as slight at best, because there’s just enough clues provided to cause uncertainty, but not nearly enough to lead a confident decision as to what it all means. All one can do when attempting to make heads or tales of Bliss is make their best guess, piece together their case for what just happened, and hope that somehow it all stands up to scrutiny. That level of frustration tempers the potential enjoyment for most moviegoers, but if you’re into those sorts of endings that leave you thinking in circles, look no further. Otherwise, ignorance truly is Bliss; which is a shame when you look at the steps that were taken to separate this story from the rest of the pack.