It’s something that I’m as guilty of as anyone else, but I think there is a logical endpoint to describing films as being “just a long episode of Black Mirror and/or The Twilight Zone.” At some point, all you’re doing is describing that thing as being high-concept science fiction and little else beyond that. That’s not to say that there aren’t films that are deserving of being scorned in exactly the same way — in fact, I think this entirely applies to Mike Cahill’s half-baked Bliss — but it speaks more explicitly about the influence and omnipresence of that type of storytelling in the landscape. Suffice to say that I wish that I could say more about Bliss than simply “it attempts to flesh out a premise and concept that would, at best, fit a half-hour TV slot,” but we’re at least going to have to start there.
Owen Wilson plays Greg Wittle, a middle-aged man who works some kind of nondescript middle-management IT job for a company called Technical Difficulties. Greg hasn’t worked much lately. His marriage has come to an end and he spends most of his days doodling pictures of villas and landscapes that seem to occupy his mind non-stop. When his boss (Steve Zissis) decides to fire him, Greg barely registers the information, but he gets up suddenly from his chair and knocks the boss over, killing him.
Hiding the body by propping it up against a window and covering it with a drape, Greg steps out to the bar across the street and meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), who explains in no uncertain terms that Greg is living in a simulation and that most of the things around him (including the dead boss) aren’t actually real. Aided by a cornucopia of pills, Greg and Isabel (who lives “off the grid” in an encampment under an underpass) begin a whirlwind romance (of sorts) in a world where they have certain powers of control and where nothing matters — and where the villas and balearic landscapes of Greg’s imagination are a very real possibility.
The pill-popping nature of the narrative (not to mention the whole “we live in a simulation” thing) has echoes of The Matrix, but Bliss is otherwise much more pared-down and simplistic in its scope (if not exactly in its ambitions) than the kind of space-operas that the Wachowskis favour. For all of its heady ideas and bonged-out reflections on the state of the world, Bliss is a pretty straightforward film that makes its intentions known (though the film would like to think it does so covertly, it does not) in the first 10 minutes and spend the rest of its running time finding ways to spin out wildly before ultimately being a film that is exactly about what it appears to be about.
It’s, of course, difficult to discuss a movie like Bliss without getting into spoiler territory, especially when so much of Bliss is predicated on the idea that practically nothing is real and that the search for bliss is all that really matters. The key to “unlocking” Bliss is found in the characters of Greg’s teenage children, played by Nesta Cooper and Jorge Lendeborg Jr., who spend the entire movie trying to get in contact with their estranged father. What seems on the surface like boilerplate troubled-character stuff soon becomes integral to the plot and ultimately more important than anything else, and yet the film continues to spin complex theories about simulations and science and so on, even going so far as to drop both Bill Nye and Slavoj Zizek into the film within minutes of each other to rather diminishing returns.
If Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek seem like particularly unusual choices to topline a heady sci-fi film like this one, their idiosyncratic casting does help smooth over the film’s many inconsistencies and flights of fancy. Though not exactly out-and-out comedic performers, Wilson and Hayek have a certain lightness to their general aura that actually helps Bliss avoid the many glum pitfalls of self-important sci-fi. Suffice to say that if Bliss starred Christian Bale and Amy Adams (to grab two of the more obvious choices), it would be even more insufferable and unconstrained than it already is. That such a heady film is bolstered by the corn-fed aw-shucks everyman nature of Wilson’s usual persona doesn’t quite save Bliss, but it at least makes its many shortcomings palatable.
Ultimately, it’s not so much that Bliss is a truly bad and bewildering movie. Though it misses the mark by a wide margin, it does so by taking the longest and most circuitous route to say almost nothing new about anything. A truly bad, misbegotten sci-fi movie is something to behold; it’s by far the most elastic and risk-prone genre, where even a few miscalculations can turn a good idea into a torture session of cringe-inducing musings and nonsense. Bliss isn’t that, even if, in parts, its skewed earnestness reminded me of the truly baffling 2003 Thomas Vinterberg boondoggle It’s All About Love. Though Bliss talks a mean talk and throws holographic Zizek at you with a certain level of unearned confidence, it’s a film with very little to say that takes a long time to say it. An episode of the aforementioned shows would say it in less time, but it would still more or less be stating the obvious. ■
Bliss is available on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, Feb. 5. Watch the trailer here:
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