A film review by Craig J. Koban February 23, 2021

BLISS jj
 

2021, R, 104 mins.

Salma Hayek as Isabel  /  Owen Wilson as Greg  /  Madeline Zima as Doris  /  Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Arthur  /  Joshua Leonard as Cameron  /  Steve Zissis as Bjorn

Written and directed by Mike Cahill

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

BLISS is the kind of high concept sci-fi drama that has an awful lot on its mind and some ambitious concepts that it wishes to explore, but lacks a thorough and satisfying follow-through on them.  

This latest Amazon Prime original film comes from Mike Cahilll, the director of the terribly underrated ANOTHER EARTH, another genre brain teaser containing a killer premise that was, in its case, compellingly explored.  His latest in BLISS delves into the well explored territory of simulated reality and tweaks it with some intriguing additions, but the film never manages to find solid footing throughout, nor does the material contained within materialize into a meaningful whole.  It's kind of equal parts enthralling and frustrating to sit through as a result, and is perhaps a few rewrites away from attaining something transformatively special for the genre the way ANOTHER EARTH did for Cahill years ago. 

The film opens modestly enough by introducing us to its sad sack protagonist in Greg (a wonderfully cast against type Owen Wilson), who seems to be wasting away in a soul crushing office job while trying to battle his emotional demons with a steady stream of prescription meds.  He's not particularly involved or invested in his work, which leads to him being dragged into his boss' office, during which time he routinely fires him for his lack of output.  For reasons a bit too complicated for me to explain, poor Greg gets into a minor physical altercation with his superior, which culminates in him taking a nasty fall that accidentally kills him in the process.  Rightfully shocked and not sure what to do next, Greg quickly hides the body (well...sort of) and exits the building to escape to a local watering hole next door.  While there he meets the mysterious Isabel (Salma Hayek), who seems to know an alarming number of very specific details about his life, like his name, where he works, and the recent murder of his boss.  Greg confusingly takes it all in as best as he can, but then he's dealt with a whopper of a revelation from her: 

The reality he occupies isn't real and what he's experiencing is a vast computer simulation that she (and he can, with training) manipulates at will. 

Paging Morpheus. 

 

 

He's sort of skeptical, as one would expect, but Isabel is steadfast in her claim ("You see all these people outside?  They're not real," she matter of factly point out).  To prove her point, she shows the scope of her powers over this faux world, which includes small tricks like lighting a candle from across the room or making people fall over with the flick of her wrist.  Greg becomes more intrigued and slowing joins Isabel down this rabbit hole of artificial reality, which includes some of the film's more lively sequences as she teaches him how to harness her unique world altering abilities (there's a sly moment set in a roller rink where the astounded Greg - in pure Owen Wilson-ian WOW fashion - is able to humorously topple over other skaters with his mind).  As the pair experiences this strange new world they become romantically involved, which catches the attention of Greg's daughter in Emily (Nesta Cooper), who shows great concern for her dad's well being.  

But...is she really his daughter, since he occupies (by Isabel's claim) a purely fabricated universe?   

I hate to delve into spoiler territory in reviews, but discussing this film in any more detail will make it a certainty, so consider yourself warned. 

Deep into the film Isabel is able to yank herself and Greg out of the simulated world they control and back into the real world, where the pair wake up in a massive scientific lab with their faces hooked up to a giant box containing floating brains called...The Brain Box. We also learn that Isabel and Greg are a couple in the real world and are both scientists, with the former having created The Brain Box to allow for jaded and cynical people to escape their hated reality and into the false one in an effort to make them appreciate the good things in the real world (still with me?).  She's on the verge of a huge research breakthrough with her invention, but there's one problem: Greg can't seem to remember much about his life before entering the synthetic world of Isabel's machine, which is a side effect of his "trips."  As he tries to escape his ill timed amnesia and starts to become familiar with snippets of actual memories, he begins to have some nagging visions, like that of his daughter in Emily.  

But...if she exists in the fake world how does she materialize in the real world? 

Paging Morpheus. 

Obviously, BLISS is not the first film to tackle its core concepts of virtual reality, but Cahill inserts highly novel ideas into the mix here, especially in the way that Isabel's contraption is used as a manner of helping people with various states of mental distress or illness...or those just jaded and fed up with the real world that can't see any light at the end of its tunnel.  In many ways, the film targets the inherent dangers of using new fangled technology to assist lost souls with achieving a desired sense of contentment and "bliss" in their lives, which seems highly topical and relevant now with billions of people living vicariously and daily through social media and those pesky little computers that we all have in our pockets.  Beyond its willingness to thanklessly take on such grand existentialist themes, BLISS also is hypnotic on a pure visual level, with Cahill flexing his creative chops with showing the real and unreal environments of the film.  Greg's office cubicle crushing world is almost macabre in its color-free garishness, but when he and Isabel retreat back to their actual world it's a bright and candy cane hued utopia of endless pleasures.   

I also applaud Cahill for casting Wilson and Hayek, two capable performers that are not everyone's first choice for lead characters in sci-fi flicks like this.  Wilson in particular is good here evoking a man (especially in the imaginary world) that seems wholly broken down by life.  Hayek, on the other hand, is giving the more free spirited and kinetic part to play here as her brilliant - but sometimes kooky - scientific mind who sometimes lets her zealot-like passion for her invention get the better of her (she's an effective foil to Wilson's more understated work and injects some much needed vivaciousness into the proceedings).  There's one large problem, though, with both of these actors: they don't have much in the way of tangible chemistry on screen.  That's not to say that they don't give it their respective all here, because both are solid on their own terms, but as credible lovers that traverse multiple spheres of reality I simply never felt that ethereal spark between them.  That's all too bad. 

That, and on a rather large negative, BLISS never seems to capitalize on the promise of its fresh take on well worn material and, all in all, it never builds to a strong dramatic crescendo that's promised.  This is not aided by the film's frequent sluggish pacing (it feels longer than its running time would let on), and the fact that Cahill's script is guilty of being way, way too talky for its own good in the way characters sort through all of the world building and rules of its phony and genuine planes of existence.  There are just too many individual scenes involving scientists talk about the hows and whys of getting to and from both worlds (including long stretches of subplots revolving around special crystal intake) that just made me want to check out.  Expositional dryness taints BLISS when the film could have left many details ambiguous and open to interpretation or the imaginations of viewers.  Cahill has a grand and engrossing sci-fi film buried deep within what he gives us here, and I appreciated that he's trying to make a genre piece that's more cemented in character dynamics and ideas  than action, VFX, and spectacle.  That approach served him exceptionally well in ANOTHER EARTH, but for this go around he seems overwhelmed by the underlining material, leading to a disjointed film that fails to connect with viewers in the way that it should have.  

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