What would happen if we found out that our lives were a computer simulation? The Wachowski siblings have already explored this question in their timeless sci-fi masterpiece “The Matrix”. Over 20 years later, Mike Cahill delivers with his genre experiment BLISS in the same notch. The result is mixed. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Bliss (USA 2021)
Greg (Owen Wilson) is middle-aged, recently divorced and, to make matters worse, has just lost his job – but not without his (ex-)boss passing away in the process. Whether it’s an accident or not: Greg has a lot of problems – until he meets the mysterious Isabel (Salma Hayek) in a bar shortly afterwards. Isabel lives on the street, but seems to be at peace with her situation. She even tries to persuade Greg to spend his life with her. If you can call it that: “life” – because Isabel is firmly convinced that everything around her is a computer simulation. Although he is skeptical at first, Greg gradually discovers that there might be something to Isabel’s theory and learns the reality behind know the reality. With fatal consequences…
Director and screenwriter Mike Cahill has only directed three feature films in around ten years, the first two of which were screened almost in camera; Nevertheless, the filmmaker, who has also been involved in series such as “The Magicians” and “The Path”, has already built up a certain reputation, which his latest work “Bliss” consistently underlines. All of his films, which roughly belong to the science fiction genre – from “Another Earth” to “I, Origins” and now “Bliss” – have in common an inherent, futuristic world-building in which technology and… their almost limitless possibilities play a key role. At the same time, his visions of the future always deal with deeply human emotions and deal with topics such as coping with grief, religion and science, as well as fundamental existential questions: Who am I? What am I? And why? One could accuse Cahill of a lack of creativity in that he once again stays true to his style in “Bliss.” And in fact, this time he hardly has anything new to add to his previous leitmotif. On the other hand, his “Bliss” is nowhere near as unwieldy as his previous films, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy fare.
Greg (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Salma Hayek): an unlikely couple
In just two years, Mike Cahill’s genre mix, which oscillates between sci-fi dystopia, pitch-black comedy and drug drama, is the second film to be called “Bliss” – and which also has the central theme of drug abuse. Joe Begos’ fantasy film festival highlight of the same name focused on a freelance painter and party-loving rocker’s bride who takes advantage of the “bliss” of her heavy cocaine use to create visually stunning masterpieces on screen – with an uncomfortable ending. understood. Cahill’s “Bliss” also takes its title from the feeling of happiness that accompanies a drug rush, although the “happiness” in “Glücksfühl” only comes into play here much later than in 2019’s “Bliss”, which is about a manic-depressive emotional ups and downs was shaped. Mike Cahill, on the other hand, first sends his protagonist Greg through hell, consisting of divorce, loss of a job and the cover-up of a death, before he places the mysterious Isabel on the cinematic stage as the supposed savior – or better: her little, orange friends who constantly and In a very harmless way, they are referred to as crystals, which, due to their obvious mind-expanding effect (Greg and Isabel suddenly have something like superpowers after taking the small stones), clearly have the same effect that only drugs can otherwise achieve.
“Mike Cahill first sends his protagonist Greg through hell, consisting of divorce, job loss and the cover-up of a death, before he places the mysterious Isabel on the cinematic stage as the supposed savior – or better: her little, orange friends who constantly and clearly harmlessly referred to as crystals.”
For about half the running time, Mike Cahill leaves his audience in the dark about what Isabel, her crystals and her claim that everything around her is just a computer simulation is all about. Although the author arranges a tracking shot in the first ten minutes of the film, which, with its long focus on a very specific building, forms a foreshadowing of the rather clumsy variety. If you look closely, this shot acts like a kind of signpost that can guide you through the scenic undergrowth of the next hour and a half – and with which the (genre) interpretation of “Bliss” should be much easier, if it goes through Mike Cahill’s production isn’t obvious enough anyway. This sets the tonal course with its audiovisual presentation by being anything but subtle. Due to the washed-out, grainy gray-on-gray in which he dresses his film in the first three quarters of an hour, a dreariness dominates the film, from which the viewer also wants to break out immediately – and therefore quickly sympathizes with it when it becomes apparent that that there is a way to do just that. Nevertheless, a bad aftertaste remains, not least because of the character of Isabel. Salma Hayek (“Killer’s Bodyguard”) can sometimes spin freely here and scratch the caricature of an addict more than once. This is exhausting and makes “Bliss” an uncomfortable film at times. At the same time, Hayek always manages to reveal the tragic core of her character, which is more marked by dependency than she would like to admit.
What is real, what is simulation?
The dramatic break about halfway through the running time finally puts the world conceived by Mike Cahill into perspective, but also leaves enough room for subtextual speculation. Because “Bliss” is always strongest when the characters do not directly tell their audience what they will gain from the scenes shown, but rather give them free rein to weigh them up for themselves. Above all, the interaction between Owen Wilson (“Wonder”) and Salma Hayek is characterized by an alternation of tension and affection that keeps the viewer’s moral compass rotating. There are no simple answers to be found either in the premise or in the characterization of the characters. The comparison between “Bliss” and an episode of the acclaimed Netflix series “Black Mirror” is therefore only obvious on a formal level. But while the makers of “Black Mirror” usually present their educational concerns openly, Mike Cahill – despite the sometimes clumsy production – is nowhere near as offensively critical and morally sour as one might think at first glance. Instead, his film – like “Another Earth” and “I, Origins” – is essentially a very tragic story about an unusual love affair that combines it with a devastating drug drama under the guise of a dystopian sci-fi setting. That doesn’t always work – sometimes Cahill can’t quite master his many influences himself. But it’s definitely ambitious.
“While the makers of “Black Mirror” usually present their educational concerns openly, Mike Cahill – despite the sometimes clumsy production – is nowhere near as offensively critical and morally sour as one might think at first glance. “
And it works on an emotional level because Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek credibly embody their volatile relationship with each other. They may lack chemistry for a classic film couple, but “Bliss” isn’t about rooting for them as a couple. Instead, a kind of relationship of dependency develops between the two when Isabel uses her supposed advances in knowledge against Greg early on in order to get her way. But it’s interesting to see how differently the characters deal with this exceptional situation. And so “Bliss” is ultimately all about constantly pushing your own comfort zone. And that doesn’t just apply to Greg and Isabel, but also to the film itself.
Conclusion: Mike Cahill has been in a better mood before, but his latest film “Bliss” is not entirely without charm. The way the filmmaker tries to create a genre mix of sci-fi dystopia, drug drama and love story is ambitious and always works best when the audience is given enough food for thought. On the other hand, whenever “Bliss” pre-empts its intention, it runs the risk of losing the interest of its viewers.
“Bliss” is available now on Amazon Prime.