“Watching Owen and Hayek let loose on an entire city without consequence is an encouraging prospect, but it’s filmed with such casual indifference that any excitement vanishes alongside the drama”
We’re all after bliss. Though unfortunately, you won’t find it in writer-director Mike Cahill’s new film. Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins) is something of a sci-fi indie gem, having carved out a space for himself working with big ideas on modest budgets, and stretching them further than they ultimately reach. This is always to be admired, and sometimes it pays off. For these films to work you need a strong script and relatable characters who you can empathize with enough to make the leaps of faith required to move with the profound swings Cahill’s stories often make. In Bliss (2021), Cahill’s latest sci-fi drama and Amazon Prime Original, the American director makes his narrative leaps but abandons all of the groundwork needed to make it work. The result is a mashup of ideas about the human condition that struggles to make any sort of impact against weak characters, senseless action, and a silly script. Not even Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek can rescue this dull sci-fi fantasy from glitching all over the place, and you’d expect a double act of this calibre to be a lot more fun than it is.
Greg Wittle (Wilson) is on the bad end of a divorce, slumming it in hotels while he tries to concentrate on his day job at a tech company suspiciously named Technical Difficulties. The opening is a head-spinning assault of ringing phones and a heaviness to Greg’s vision that makes it clear something isn’t quite right. The biggest indicator that we’re in one world and about to catapult into another is the drawing that completely enraptures Greg on his desk. He’s plucked it from a troubled mind that depends on the medication in his draw. There’s a woman in it that he doesn’t recognise. Her eventual reveal is as flat as the drawing. Is he scribbling down a dream of a distant future or a past life once lived? Both, it turns out, are true. It’s been keeping him up at night. It’s all he thinks about. And it’s about to cost him his job. He’s fired and an accident turns Greg into a fugitive. Wilson is naturally suited to Wittle’s haphazard foolishness and curiosity towards anything he doesn’t understand, and so this early ramshackle of hazy mystery and breakneck pace works in getting your attention early. But the lack of any serious consequences, resistance from Greg as a protagonist, and lack of visual excitement ensure the film loses you in its nonsensical vision just as quickly.
While Wilson feels at home with the film’s tussle with reality and fantasy, it’s Hayek’s character that feels disappointingly out of place. Hayek is having a good time but seems confused at the complex, though-provoking sci-fi drama she’s in with her line-delivery all of the place, most critically going for her typical chaotic-fun during dramatic situations. Fleeing and scared, Greg winds up at the conveniently placed bar across the street, which is where he meets Isabel (Hayek) dressed like a witchy mentor from a YA fantasy and also role-playing as one. The bar is the first of many bare-bones choices. If Greg is so concerned about being caught, wouldn’t he have run a little further? It doesn’t matter, the film has no interest in believability, except that it does, and this is the entire crux that everything depends upon. Cahill’s lack of commitment to grounding the fantasy is why none of it works.
The big dramatic pull is that Greg’s reality is not the true reality. He needs to wake up Neo-style and discover his real self. Relating to this is made impossible the first time Isabel flings a man across the room with her finger. The silliness is made even harder to emotionally engage with during a roller blading sequence that is supposed to be charming with its pop soundtrack, except it’s intercut with the two having sex in a grimy toilet. It’s also mashed together with a montage of them hurling bystanders across the room with telekinesis that only works if they swallow a yellow pill (it’s never properly explained). One bystander also includes an old woman on crutches. Greg is hesitant, for about half a second of morality, broken down by a smirk from Isabel which always leads him to believe everything she says. Is sweeping the legs of an old woman supposed to be fun? What’s the goal here? Yes, Isabel has informed Greg that they aren’t real, but even so, what is the point of this violence? It doesn’t make any sense. Greg doesn’t believe what’s going on or understand it, so the audience has no chance. Nevertheless, it should be enjoyable in a chaotic way – you have two stars that usually warm the screen – but Bliss is quite an ugly and boring film to sit through. Watching Wilson and Hayek let loose on an entire city without consequence is an encouraging prospect, but it’s filmed with such casual indifference that any excitement vanishes alongside the drama.
Greg, unsurprisingly, is a successful scientist from Isabel’s world: a sunlit utopia, free of disease and equipped with an automated workforce. We’ve seen it all before, although the brief ideas about the benefits of a robotic workforce and plunging money into scientific endeavours for a better world are especially relevant in holding up a mirror to our own life. This is where Cahill’s film should have spent the majority of our time, but it’s brushed over so quickly, and Gregg as a character is so easily duped that it’s easy to float alongside him not really questioning anything, and neither is the film asking anything. Isabel’s counterpoint is that a utopia needs a reality check in the form of a horrible virtual reality so that they appreciate all the good in the world. A noble idea, but one that doesn’t make sense when you consider it.
Cahill has shown he can juggle interesting ideas about humanity, science, and all the what-if’s of life, yet in this film, he’s abandoned basic storytelling principles, forgotten to ground his characters before lazily throwing them off a cliff of reality shifts and inexplicable magic. There’s no doubt that Cahill had a vision and set out to make it, but Bliss misses the target by another dimension. The heart’s there, we just don’t feel a thing.
Director: Mike Cahill
Producers: James D. Stern, Adam Haggiag, Lucas Smith, Marsha L. Swinton
Cast: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Bill Nye, Nesta Cooper
Release Date: 2021
Available on: Amazon Prime Video 05 Feb 2021
Feature image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video