Written and directed by Mike Cahill, Bliss has strong ideas about economic inequality and it ambitiously works to pull off being a sci-fi thriller that is layered with social commentary. However, the film falls short of delivering something more compelling and complex, primarily because it’s trying to do too much at once. Caught between being a thought-provoking, visually striking sci-fi romance, Bliss struggles with bringing these two concepts together cohesively.
The film opens with Greg (Owen Wilson), an office employee who’s clearly not very tuned into what’s going on at his job. Divorced and seemingly estranged from his family, Greg promises to make it to the high school graduation of his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper). However, things take a strange turn when he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), a homeless woman who reveals she and Greg are actually together and is convinced the world they are currently living in is not real, but a computer simulation. Caught in the middle of an unfolding mystery, Greg navigates the world alongside Isabel in a bid to find some answers.
The film is ambiguous, though not in a good way, and confusing with regards to its own sense of rules and reality. Despite the twists and turns Bliss takes, some of which are actually sharp and interesting, the film fails to explore Wilson’s Greg in any meaningful way. He’s trapped by his own despair and is regretful to a fault, but it’s his avoidance and unwillingness to delve deeper into his own understanding of the world around him that stifles his overall development. His backstory is intriguingly complex, though Cahill seems hesitant to take his story beyond the constraints of the painstakingly constructed world for fear of dissolving the mystery.
The film will likely draw comparisons to The Matrix and that makes sense considering the story Bliss attempts to pull off. However, it’s far less cohesive and there are not very many answers to the elusive plot. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have moments of lucidity, but a lot of its potential is lost through its inability to fully explore the nuance that occasionally creeps up. What Bliss isn’t able to capture through its story is presented with clarity in its distinct cinematography, juxtaposing the dreary and dilapidated with luminous color and extravagance. On the flip side, Bliss falters in its romantic storytelling, choosing to explain that Greg and Isabel are “soul mates” without doing the work to properly show what they mean to each other throughout.
Wilson does a fantastic job of balancing his character’s bewilderment with his wanting to be loved and cared for, with his performance bringing out a gentler side that is rarely on display. Hayek has the more difficult job as Isabel, having to convince viewers that her character means well and is steering Greg in the right direction. It’s a hard sell and not every aspect of Hayek’s performance works, though she still does a good job with falling into step with the film’s chaotic energy.
Bliss is punctuated by genuinely heart wrenching moments, with a central character who obviously struggles to make sense of reality and where he ultimately stands with regards to the life he has and the one he may or may not want. There’s a sense of longing, a lingering sadness that permeates his consciousness and makes it easy to root for him while he tries to make sense of his surroundings. By the end, however, it would seem that Cahill hasn’t fully made sense of what’s going on and this ambivalence is showcased in the muddled message that Bliss can’t quite grasp.
Bliss is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video as of February 5, 2021. The film is 103 minutes long and is rated R for drug content, language, some sexual material and violence.
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