Bliss is an unstable sci-fi film that has a lot on its mind.
by Jeremy Fogelman
Science fiction is something that’s easier than ever to visualize due to the higher capabilities, if you have an idea and the right budget, anything you can imagine can be shown, for good or ill. But inherently science fiction is about using the genre to examine ideas about the modern world, using the advanced science in such movies as a way to help us understand them. You can handle this in a way that’s subtle or a way that’s entirely without it.
Bliss comes from writer/director Mike Cahill, and he’s an interesting artist - I recall his movie Another Earth from ten years ago that was also a sci-fi movie that didn’t really utilize its own conceit to its fullest potential. But one of the things about Bliss is that it really wants to be “interesting” and “complicated” with an ambiguous ending. But I don’t think the movie quite realizes what it’s trying to say.
We start with Greg (Owen Wilson) as he gets fired from his job at some sort of caller response company and it’s kind of a light, interesting story so far. But then quickly his life falls apart and he winds up homeless and here’s where the movie gets muddled. In a diner, an odd woman Isabel (Salma Hayek) tries to do something to him, but it has no effect. She is surprised that her “powers” didn’t work.
She then tells him that they are in a world that’s a physical simulation (the term or the movie The Matrix is never mentioned) and nearly everyone is fake. Because they aren’t, they have the capability to use telekinesis on people and objects, and she promises to show Greg how to do it. There’s a lot she isn’t saying, but there seem to be a lot of hints that she’s right, especially when Greg is also able to perform the supernatural feats.
But at the same time, Greg’s daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) is looking for him, and from her perspective her dad is homeless and maybe out of his mind. So suddenly everyone is possibly a figment of Greg’s imagination, and every criminal act he performed with Isabel he justified because the other people are “fake” may be real after all.
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Isabel insists that the “real” world is a utopia and Greg’s concern about his fake daughter threatens to sink him into the simulation permanently. Which is a convenient story angle. Although who knows? If Greg truly is imagining everything, perhaps it’s just himself talking to himself and it’s a movie about the blurry lines between reality and technological future.
There’s a lot of interesting visuals, and the chemistry between the two leads is decent enough, but the problem is what the movie shows us. The movie is uncareful about which points of view are shown, which inherently bias its own reality in certain directions that belie the theoretical ambiguous ending that it clearly desires.
Another Earth had a similar sort of “non-ending” although I found that one more infuriating. Bliss is mostly coherent and I did care about the characters until the final act, when the craziness of the world isn’t really explained in a logical enough way to buy into it anymore. I really enjoyed a lot of the movie but I thought the ending was kind of a cop out, but on the other hand, I respect the audacious attempt at a mind bending concept.
Perhaps it’s less clever than it thinks it is, but I think the director does have a good sense of his characters, even if his worlds may need to be improved in the future.
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