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Mike Cahill wants to blow your mind. That much is apparent from his previous theatrical films, Another Earth and I Origins, both of which dealt with intellectually trippy sci-fi themes. The writer/director continues on the same path with his latest effort set in two worlds, one of which is a computer simulation. Figuring out which is which provides the main interest of the film starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek, premiering on Amazon Prime Video. Although even after watching Bliss, you may not be sure. As with both of his previous works, the filmmaker delivers an undeniably ambitious mind-bender that bites off more than it can narratively chew.
Wilson plays Greg, a recently divorced sad-sack who’s devoted to his grown daughter, Emily (Nesta Cooper). He spends most of his time at work mindlessly drawing idyllic scenes on notepads, and when he’s repeatedly summoned to see his boss, he instead takes time to call the pharmacy to get his latest prescription renewed. When he does finally drag himself to the meeting, he’s promptly fired. And then he accidentally kills his boss.
RELEASE DATE Feb 05, 2021
And that’s not even the strangest thing that happens to him that day. Drowning his sorrows in a bar, he meets a mysterious woman, Isabel (Hayek), who latches on to him with obvious romantic interest. “You’re my guy,” she tells him. She’s also homeless, and has magical powers of telekinesis, which she demonstrates to Greg that he has as well. She takes him roller skating, during which both have a fine time wreaking physical havoc and knocking people off their feet with the mere wave of a finger. He doesn’t have to worry that they’re actually hurting anyone, she assures him, since everything around them is merely a computer simulation. “It’s not real,” she declares.
Normally, to reveal what happens next would count as a spoiler. But since it’s all shown in the trailer, all bets are off. Greg suddenly wakes up, sporting a much better haircut, in a modernistic laboratory. It’s all been part of a scientific experiment conducted by Isabel, who also looks remarkably more kempt. It turns out that Greg is a scientist as well, having invented a “thought visualizer” device. The lab is located on a beautiful island (actually Lopud, off the coast of Croatia, which should see a dramatic rise in tourism if enough people see the film), which seems to have as many holograms of people as actual ones.
Not surprisingly, Greg is quite confused by all this, not quite sure what is reality and what is not. Viewers may well relate to his plight, with the scenario featuring a plethora of twists and turns that must have seemed very clever on paper but ultimately feel off-putting. Greg’s doubts are furthered by the admonition of another scientist who advises him that serious questions have come up about Isabel’s research. He’s played by “Science Guy” Bill Nye, complete with bowtie, so you know he’s credible.
For all the intellectual questions this puzzle-game of a film raises, it fails to engage on an emotional level. We never care about the relationship between Greg and Isabel in whatever world they’re in. A subplot involving Emily’s desperate efforts to find her missing father feels extraneous. As with his previous films, Cahill attempts to add thriller elements to the mix, but the stakes feel so artificial that little suspense is generated.
Wilson’s amiable, regular-guy persona makes him perfect for the role, allowing viewers to fully identify with Greg’s confused state. While Hayek is fine as her doctor character, she goes a little overboard as the mystical homeless woman, coming across like she’s auditioning to play the wacky medium Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit.
Bliss boasts admirable technical elements, including well-conceived production design and cinematography that expertly delineate the two very different worlds the main characters inhabit. But for all the film’s imagination, it’s hard not to think that we’ve been down this Matrix-like road before. You find yourself wondering why Greg doesn’t simply take the red pill.
Production companies: Amazon Studios, Endgame Entertainment, Big Indie Pictures
Distributor: Amazon Prime Video
Cast: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Josh Leonard, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye
Director/screenwriter: Mike Cahill
Producer: James D. Stern
Executive producers: Lucas Smith, Marsha L. Swinton
Director of photography: Markus Forderer
Production designer: Kasra Farahani
Editor: Troy Takaki
Composer: Will Bates
Costume designer: Annie Bloom
Casting: Marisol Roncali, Chelsea Ellis BlochRated
PG-13, 103 min.
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