A quick glance across director Mike Cahill’s previous films reveals a deep interest in stories with a dedicated sci-fi bent. In both Another Earth (2011) and I, Origins (2014)- which he organized with sometimes writing partner and actress Brit Marling- the themes of personal identity shifting in the face of omnipotent technology and the literal obliteration of our world by a mirror planet are front and center. Philosophical to an extent, but always remaining cognizant of its personal relationships, both of those films were interesting explorations of a certain type of thinking independent picture.
Cahill attempts this for a third time with Bliss, a film that not only idea-checks the millennial blockbuster The Matrix (1999), but also draws from the works of Ayn Rand and Philip K. Dick to boil up a story of futuristic brain melding that feels less persuasive than his earlier efforts just as its reach seems greater. Bliss is the type of film that has a lot on its mind, but falls short of completely engaging because one is trying to watch for the twists rather than allow the personal connection of the narrative to work its magic.
Certainly fronting his largest cast to date, the film opens on a dazed Owen Wilson as Greg, a middle management telemarketer cloistered in his office drawing images of an unknown house with a beautiful woman standing in front of it. Even the incessant calls from his boss can’t seem to pry him away from his imagination, which we soon learn is depressively compounded from a recent divorce as his daughter (Nesta Cooper) begs him to attend her upcoming graduation.
When he finally does make his walk upstairs in a drab, colorless world of office cubicles and drained exterior vistas, he’s promptly fired and, to add injury to insult, accidentally kills his boss.
Quickly hiding the body and making a beeline for the nearest dive bar, Greg meets Isabel (Salma Hayek) and it’s not long before she has him believing that he’s only a cog in a simulated world and the yellow pills she keeps around her neck will enhance his ‘realness’ in a world populated by fake people.
Their relationship grows quickly (or descends into homelessness, whichever way one looks at it), and it’s here that Bliss raises some of its most interesting questions. How often do we wonder how that panhandler got to be on that street corner? How truly rare is the case of a person who simply drops off the radar for personal reasons? How prevalent is mental illness in the homeless community? For a time, Cahill allows us to interpret Isabel as nothing more than a homeless drug dealer and Greg as the mentally unstable pawn caught in her manipulative clutches. And then Bliss goes in another direction, effectively pulling the virtual rug out from underneath us and shifting the film in another direction. Suffice it to say, Bill Nye even gets a supporting role in a film that goes to bizarre places as real and imagined worlds combine.
As the increasingly manic couple, Hayek and Wilson seem like an odd choice, as if they chose the roles just as an opportunity to rub dirt under their fingernails and yell most of their lines in a panic. It’s an example of the film’s idea of madness being overshadowed by the execution. As each twist comes, the film becomes less interesting. I interpret Cahill wanted to make a grand statement about mental illness, but the science fiction obfuscation only muddies the waters more.
Towards the end, Bliss does hit a genuine moment of development. Without spoiling it, Wilson reaches a decision, and the camera holds on him for quite a bit as he shifts through an array of emotions. It’s a defining moment for his character, but one that comes a little late in a film awash in uninvolved genre bending.
Bliss begins streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video Friday February 5th.