Simulation theory, the belief that our lives could actually be artificial and part of a computer simulation, is a concept that has long been explored in science fiction. The Wachowski’s most famously delved into the concept in The Matrix, and most recently in Rodney Ascher’s newly released documentary on the subject, A Glitch in the Matrix. So will the latest sci-fi offering hitting streamer Amazon Prime Video bring a new angle to the mind-bending discussion?
Written and directed by Mike Cahill, Bliss centres on the recently divorced Greg (Owen Wilson) as his life begins to spiral. It appears as if he’s addicted to painkillers and his lack of concentration leads him to be fired from his customer services job. Fleeing into a bar from an incident that spirals out of control, he meets the free spirit Isabel (Salma Hayek) who decides to help him out with his predicament if he helps retrieve a special amulet for her. She then explains that the pair are actually scientists from an utopian world conducting an experiment, and that they need to head out on a mission to retrieve more crystals to return.
Living in current pandemic times, the good intentions Cahill intended with the message of the film are initially admirable. “You have to experience the good in order to appreciate the bad,” Isabel says. “No, the other way around,” Greg corrects her, and she replies, “Exactly.” However, I just couldn’t escape from this overwhelming bittersweet feeling, as underneath the scant science-fiction elements, it’s clear to see they both have issues with substance abuse. The promise of escaping to a more beautiful utopia is their coping mechanism, and as we’re currently in the third lockdown here in the UK, it’s difficult to negate Isable’s outlook entirely.
Initially unveiling much like the opening of The Matrix is perhaps the biggest mistake Cahill made, as expectations for a similar philosophical sci-fi plot were quickly made. Yes there are certain genre elements included; the blue and yellow “crystals”, the “brainbox” machine and what appeared to be telekinesis powers, but the reasons behind their inclusion were pretty plain to see. This is sci-fi-on-a-stringshoe, and I’m afraid to say the main concept is disappointingly more conceptual than realised.
The central partnership of Wilson and Hayek is certainly an entertaining one, and Hayek certainly seems like she’s having a fun time frantically running around the alternating universes debating the nature of existence with Wilson’s Greg. However, amusing roller derby scene aside, there just isn’t enough time devoted to establishing the connection between the two characters to make it feel believable. Travelers Nesta Cooper is perhaps the standout here, with an impassioned performance as Greg’s hurt but devoted daughter. Even Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy) randomly turns up to try and add an extra layer of believability to proceedings.
Story gripes aside, there’s no denying that Bliss is a well shot film, with the use of colour to distinguish between the broken, polluted world and the utopian world a particularly interesting element. The World building is impressive, the costumes, hair and make-up, colour grading and even the actors used in scenes prove a clear contrast between Worlds. The Mediterranean locations used for the utopia world, which hugely resemble Montenegro, are certainly beautiful escapes from our houses we’ve been confined to. The brainbox machine and the power gained from the “crystals” are also well realised, but unfortunately sparingly used throughout.
Perhaps Bliss would have worked better as a short, as director Mike Cahill’s signature use of an open-ended and ambiguous ending will prove frustrating for most. Much like his previous instalment Another Earth, the journey is perhaps the most important part, but depending on your expectations, this takeaway may disappoint.