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'Bliss' Review: Real empathy shouldn't be engineered virtually

Mike Cahill's 'Bliss' unsuccessfully makes the claim that if the world was too perfect we would need to remind ourselves its potential to be terrible.

Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson play two people seemingly untethered from their reality in the sci-fi mystery 'Bliss'.
(Image: © Amazon Prime)

Our Verdict

Like 'Another Earth' before it Mike Cahill's sci-fi premise makes big philosophical swings but doesn't quite run all of the logical bases to get there.

For

  • 💻 Hayek is unsurprisingly convincing both as a seductive gypsy and an ambitious, insecure scientist.
  • 💻 Nesta Cooper steals her scenes as a young woman who may not be real, but who draws out powerful emotions from Wilson's character.

Against

  • 💻 The idea of learning to appreciate a perfect reality by experiencing a virtual simulation of poverty is something a rich person would come up with.
  • 💻 Wilson is oddly miscast as the man lost in between the layers of these conflicting realities.

It seems like an insane idea to have to explore poverty, drug addiction, homelessness and civil unrest in order to appreciate the good things one has in their life, but in Bliss, one scientist and her husband set out to prove that the former is essential in order to preserve the latter. Another Earth director and co-writer Mike Cahill likes to take big swings with sci-fi stories that hold enormous philosophical ramifications, and his latest is no exception — including its uneven success. Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson throw themselves into the shifting realities of an idyllic world that her character argues people desperately need to get out of touch with, while his becomes seduced by simulated emotional connections that begin to feel more real than, well, reality.

Owen Wilson plays Greg Wittle, a recently divorced, low-level executive at a nondescript company who has become obsessed with recreating images from his mind of a perfect seaside home — a Mediterranean paradise that stands in stark contrast to the dingy grey work space where he and dozens of others toil. When Greg’s startled during a meeting with his boss Bjorn (Steve Zissis), who means to fire him, Bjorn strikes his head and gets knocked unconscious; Greg flees to a nearby bar where a mysterious woman named Isabel (Hayek) invites him to sit for a drink — and an alibi. She proceeds to explain that they are two of a very few real people in the midst of a computer-generated simulation, and they can manipulate the others around them by ingesting crystals that give them an equivalent of telekinetic powers. Intoxicated by these new abilities, Greg holes up with Isabel in a skid row alcove and the two of them make an uneasy living foraging for sustenance among nearby transients and prostitutes.

But when Greg’s daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) contacts him in an effort to help out and reconnect, Greg begins to lose his ability to discern what’s real and what isn’t, especially with Isabel constantly attempting to explain their situation and only confusing him further. Eventually, Isabel decides to bring him back to their reality — one very similar to his dreams — in order to disavow him from believing too deeply in the relationships with a daughter, son and ex-wife that the simulation has developed for him. But after awakening in the world of those dreams, where affluence, comfort and happiness dominate their landscape instead of pain and dissatisfaction, Greg and Isabel both struggle to find their bearings — a big problem for Isabel, since the simulation is the foundation of her scientific work. Soon, the people and situations that they encountered inside the simulation follow them into the real world, forcing them to make an ultimate decision whether to stay in this corrupted “real” world, or return to and reinvest in the purity — and the struggle — of a virtual one that isn’t.

It’s hard to know how much to reveal about a story like this because there are so many layers, reveals and misdirections that change the audience’s bearing. But Cahill tips his hat very early on that what turns out to be a simulation for the dissatisfied, foundering Greg is not real, and so therefore we the audience discover along with him what each part of the experience means, and who are the various characters that he encounters. Regardless, it’s a premise (within the film) that you begin to feel like would only be conceived by tremendously privileged people: in a futuristic world where all social ills have been eliminated, its inhabitants must virtually experience them occasionally so they won’t get bored or disillusioned by perfection. In other words, Isabel’s exercise is VR poverty porn. That Greg becomes increasingly desperate to reconnect with his children, at least one of whom loves him desperately and for whom he still very much feels responsible, isn’t a surprise; but that he becomes fascinated, possibly addicted to its risk and desperation, the volatility of living hand to mouth and minute by minute, takes some more convincing, and Cahill doesn’t quite make the case.

To some extent, the problem is that the way virtual reality is depicted in movies (and other advanced technologies of this kind) always seems tethered to a level of affluence, if not extreme wealth; the only people who would need to be periodically “educated” about poverty and squalor are those who never really experienced it. Moreover, there don’t seem to be a lot of wealthy people in our actual reality who are eager to experience it either, even vicariously. So as a result, the whole premise is a thought exercise at best, and in this case, it’s one that Cahill didn’t fully think through. Casting Wilson proves to be another miscalculation; not only does he lack any sort of real romantic or marital chemistry with Hayek, but he’s an actor who exudes a constantly discombobulated presence on screen, and even (maybe especially) in a movie where he, and we, are constantly trying to get our bearings, he’s the wrong tour guide.

Hayek is convincing as Isabel, both as a seductive gypsy simulation and an ambitious but insecure scientist desperate to prove herself. But oddly it’s Cooper who provides the film’s heart — first as the daughter Greg desperately wants to reconnect with, and then as the daughter who desperately wants to save him — and unfortunately she isn’t woven into the story effectively enough to maintain or amplify a sense of urgency that drives it to what becomes both a personal choice but also a philosophical quandary. Ultimately, Cahill creates plenty of complex and contradictory layers for this journey to define (and I guess full appreciate) the reality that surrounds us. But what he does with Bliss is start with a completed picture and start tugging away at loose strands, hoping that they’ll make sense when they’re pulled apart, when working from the opposite direction would have guaranteed that his film would end in a better, clearer place — whether audiences believe in it or not.

Bliss will be available on Amazon Prime February 5th, 2021.