The biggest challenge of discussing Mike Cahill’s “Bliss” lies in describing its premise without making it sound considerably wilder and more interesting than it actually is. In short, the film stars Owen Wilson as a sad-sack office drone who, after accidentally killing his boss, is rescued by an intense, shamanistic homeless woman played by Salma Hayek, who not only informs him that they are soulmates, but also that they are among the few flesh-and-blood humans inhabiting a complex computer simulation, and by imbibing the right combinations of colorful crystals they can bend the laws of physics, and also travel to a paradisiacal alternate reality where their days consist of lounging on yachts and hobnobbing at parties with Bill Nye and a holographic Slavoj Žižek. See? Sounds intriguing enough, doesn’t it?
Now imagine a strangely dull, lead-footed treatment of that premise, and you’ve got some idea of what you’ve got in store with “Bliss.” Which is unfortunate, because Cahill is usually an admirably ambitious, thoughtful filmmaker, and in his previous lower-budget features he displayed a real nose for teasing out relatable human hooks in the midst of bold sci-fi concepts. But allowed to paint with a lusher, more elaborate canvass here, he instead loses himself in the minutia, fumbling one promising idea after another until we’re left with little more than a listless “Matrix” retread, minus the spectacle and the suspense.
“Bliss” begins brightly enough, with Greg (Wilson) trudging his way through a dreary weekday at what appears to be an IT call center designed by Jean-Paul Sartre. Ignoring the flashing red lights on his telephone switchboard, he occupies himself by drawing pictures of an imagined dream home in a seaside village, as well as dipping into a bottle of pills to treat a possibly nonexistent ailment. He’s recently divorced, he’s becoming alienated from his teenage daughter (Nesta Cooper), and he’s hardly been present at work lately, so we know before he does what’s coming when his boss calls him into his office. As Greg is being fired, he accidentally knocks his boss backwards into a desk, killing him.
Fleeing the scene for a nearby bar – a sign behind the liquor shelves reads: “Plato’s Dive” – Greg is greeted by the fierce stare of Isabel (Hayek), who seems to have been waiting for him. “You’re real,” she tells him, and offers to help him evade his murder rap, using what initially appear to be telekinetic powers. In fact, as she explains to the confused Greg, she and he are both real people trapped in an elaborate simulation, and after convincing him to ditch his phone and his wallet, they shack up together at Isabel’s makeshift camp on the banks of the L.A. River. For reasons that are never entirely clear, they need to consume special yellow crystals in order to manipulate the simulation, and once they procure a few, they go on a bit of a bender — using their godlike abilities to inflict slapstick violence on a few unlucky passers-by.
About those crystals: The parallels between these vials of super-powerful precious gems and Greg’s bottle of hoarded painkillers seem obvious enough, and at worst they would seem to function simply as convenient plot devices. Yet the film treats these crystals with puzzling literalness, following Isabel as she scours flophouses and abandoned buildings to find them, and delving into detail about the different properties of yellow crystals versus blue ones, the amount of each needed to produce certain effects, the difference between swallowing them and injecting them through the nose with a funky steel contraption… With every new wrinkle and head-scratching revelation, the film drifts further and further away from the more interesting philosophical questions raised by its premise.
In his excellent breakthrough feature, “Another Earth,” Cahill spun a tale with a similar parallel-worlds conceit, in which a second planet Earth, containing mirror reflections of everyone on this planet, suddenly appears on the horizon. Rather than dwell on the mechanics of how such a planet might exist, or what this second earth actually looks like, instead he focused entirely on how the knowledge of such a planet would affect our own notions of mortality, identity, guilt. Whereas in “Bliss,” Cahill gets so bogged down in hair-splitting rules and exposition that he loses track of the bigger themes.
Namely, how is Greg supposed to take the revelation that his beloved daughter is merely an NPC in an intricate video game? The film seems aware that this ought to be the dramatic heart of the narrative, but it can’t stop getting in its own way by piling on further complications, each less engaging than the last. Without spoiling anything that isn’t revealed in the trailer, Greg and Isabel escape the simulation into the “real world” before too long, and from here the film loses its bearings entirely.
Wilson and Hayek make for an odd pairing, with the former hewing close to his hangdog default mode even in the strangest of circumstances, and the latter going for broke as a volatile, wild-eyed sort of street prophet. Hayek’s willingness to go so far over the top is jarring at first, but as the film nears its climax and finds her still delivering reams of stilted explanatory dialogue, one starts to feel grateful for her energy — if only the rest of the film had the same sort of loopy spark.