Talk about an unexpected yet intriguing pairing. In the new film “Bliss” Owen Wilson and Selma Hayek are two people traveling back and forth between vastly different realities. But soon perceptions of what’s real and what’s a simulation begin to blur. This catchy concept comes from the mind of writer-director Mike Cahill whose indie sci-fi credentials include 2011’s “Another Earth” and 2014’s “I Origins”. He’s been doing television since but returns to features with “Bliss”, a sci-fi drama with a splash of old-fashioned mystery.
It seems 2021 will see a bit of a resurgence for Wilson who is also set to star in the upcoming MCU streaming series “Loki” and has been shooting a new romantic comedy with Jennifer Lopez. Here he plays Greg Wittle, recently divorced and trapped in a go-nowhere white-collar job with an agency called Technical Difficulties (I kinda love that name). He lives in a broken world full of poverty and pollution and bathed in a depressing blue-gray hue. Disconnected from his daily duties of working the phones, Greg sits in his office sketching images that seem pulled from his memories – images of a much better world and of a beautiful woman indelibly linked to it.
Greg’s spacey lackadaisical efforts cost him his job and soon he’s in a bar – lost, depressed and knocking back a double whiskey. That’s when he notices a mysterious woman (Hayek) sitting in a booth and paying him an unusual amount of attention. Her name is Isabel, a vagabond with some rather peculiar powers that can manipulate physical objects, even people. When her powers fail to work on Greg she realizes that he too must be ‘real’. So she tells him a wild story of how the damaged world they’re living in is actually a computer simulation and that he too has powers of his own.
Early on Cahill keep things pretty close to the chest, dropping a few breadcrumbs to make sure we’re going in the right direction. Before long he’s hitting us with oddities such as yellow and blue crystals, FGP’s (Fake Generated Persons), Bill Nye the Science Guy, and a strange contraption called the Brain Box. Even Isabel proves to be a riddle, throwing out ambiguous lines like “You’re my guy” and “Let’s just say it’s kind of my fault this world exists.” And she seems to have a vested interest in convincing Greg to leave behind every attachment he has to this murky troubled world, namely his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper).
When Greg and Isabel enter the second of the two realities, a lavish and vibrantly colored upper-class world, she reveals herself to be a renowned yet slightly controversial scientist. She contends that she created the simulation as a means to make people appreciate ‘the good life’. Greg realizes this is ‘the better world’ from his earlier sketches – the world of wealth and comfort he has dreamed of. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t shake the emotional connections from the other reality, especially Emily who makes figuring out what’s real even more challenging.
Right out of the gate we get some good table-setting and it quickly becomes clear that this is movie with big ideas and plenty that it wants to say. Sadly not all of the puzzle pieces come together to fit as tightly as they should. So we inevitably get some exposition-heavy scenes that attempt to fill in the gaps. Much of the explaining ends up on the shoulders of Hayek who ranges from fascinating and enigmatic to frustratingly flighty. And though not her fault, some of her musings simply aren’t that engaging which ends up hurting the film’s bigger themes. Meanwhile Wilson gives a solid performance but is hitched to a character who spends far more time confused and pondering than actually revealing anything significant.
“Bliss” feels like something that sounds really good as a concept but that doesn’t quite pan out on screen. It’s telling that some of the film’s visual touches such as occasional blips on the screen and the neat but slightly overused lens flares are more alluring than the story itself. And it’s unfortunate that the quirky but compelling pairing of Owen Wilson and Selma Hayek can’t quite breathe enough life into this ambitious but wobbly futuristic story. “Bliss” premieres February 5th on Amazon Prime streaming.
VERDICT- 2.5 STARS