Gloom, loneliness, and despair are constants in life, but over the past year, those sorts of feelings have crowded way closer to nearly everyone. Bliss, the latest from Mike Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins), proposes all that darkness is actually just a grim simulation beamed from an idealised reality. Or is it?
When first we meet Greg (Owen Wilson, who’s on the comeback trail with this and Marvel’s Loki coming up), he’s barely hanging on to his shell of a life. He’s just been fired from his job, living in a grubby motel after getting divorced, estranged from his children, and the pharmacy is denying him a refill on the prescription pills he’s become dependent on. The only thing keeping him going, besides the drugs, are his fantasies about an idyllic dream world that contrasts with his current life in every way.
Greg’s tenuous existence begins to slip even more when he meets Isabel (a magnetic, occasionally ferocious Salma Hayek), a woman living on the city’s fringes (“I’m not homeless, I’m just off the grid”) who almost immediately sucks him into her freewheeling existence. What initially feels like two addicts forming a fast connection takes a sci-fi twist when Isabel whips out her “yellows,” jewel-like pills that imbue whoever consumes them with the ability to manipulate reality — or “reality,” as the case may be, since Isabel is convinced that everything in her midst, aside from her and Greg and a few others, is actually an intricate simulation.
Bliss makes you question your own eyes from the beginning; Isabel might be talking nonsense, but then how is she able to make lights blip out and drink trays fall by just flicking her fingers? If Greg’s not living in a simulation, then how come his dream-world drawings feature a woman who looks eerily like Isabel? Things get blurrier when Isabel introduces an even more potent drug that causes the user to awaken in a world ripped straight out of Greg’s imagination. Everything there is lush and affluent and golden-hued, and Isabel is a famous scientist who’s created a cutting-edge simulation of a down-and-out world to help people appreciate their good fortunes, rather than a woman living under a freeway overpass.
Writer-director Cahill — who probed a different sort of parallel existence in Another Earth — never definitively says which reality is the real reality, but there’s a pretty strong clue in the form of Greg’s worried daughter, Emily (Nesta Cooper), who persists in trying to find him and help him. (Greg’s son, played by Bumblebee’s Jorge Lendeborg Jr., has long since cut ties with the father who’s let him down too many times.) Even when Greg is living in his dream-world reality, Emily’s love and concern for him enables her to flicker through, as much as Isabel tries to convince Greg that she’s just a computer-generated character.
Ultimately, Bliss’ messages about learning to appreciate what’s right in front of you, as well as facing ugly things about yourself that you’d rather just wish away, are made pretty clear, and it’s a way more intimate story about simulation theory than anything seen in, say, The Matrix. But the journey to get there is involving and occasionally harrowing; the lead performances, by actors we’re used to seeing in lighter fare, pinball between raggedy desperation and well-groomed serenity, but with layers to each that eventually begin to crack apart.
Bliss is also a visually arresting film, with varying cinematography depending on which setting we happen to be in, and clever details woven into the mise-en-scène. In particular, the bar where Greg and Isabel meet winks at a philosophical allegory with particular relevance to Bliss’ themes — instead of Plato’s cave, it’s Plato’s Dive. Your life might be fake, so drink up.
Bliss premieres on Amazon Prime tomorrow, February 5.