Owen Wilson is at the top of his game in the completely ludicrous sci-fi film “Bliss.” Written and directed by Mike Cahill, known for his trippy sci-fi films, (“Another Earth,” ‘I, Origins”), Wilson not only keeps a straight face while delivering lines of quasi-scientific gibberish, but he also manages to sell the emotional stakes of a movie that often makes little sense.
The movie starts out simple enough: Wilson plays Greg, a middle-aged man who works at a firm called Technical Difficulties. Greg is having some of his own personal technical difficulties, including a failed marriage, a cruddy job, plus a hobby that distracts him from picking up the phone at work. He draws pictures of his dream home by the sea and a woman, smoking, framed in the doorway. Then things get start to go really off-kilter.
When Greg is fired, he pushes his boss into a desk and kills him. This incident leads him to connect with Isabel (Salma Hayek), a homeless person who claims to have telekinetic powers (thanks to a drug she calls “the yellows”). Isabel soon pronounces Greg her soulmate and convinces him that they are in a ‘Matrix’-esque computer simulation—they are real, but almost everyone else is not. As if Greg didn’t have enough going on already. Now he has to deal with his boss, his family, and this whole simulation thing.
The whole scenario is completely insane, and the script throws a quasi ridiculous “Sophie’s Choice” at Greg. “All of this is an illusion,” Isabel informs him, meaning Greg has to choose between the under-saturated world he’s in now, or the cleaner world that awaits him outside the simulation. The choice is harder than it sounds, and Wilson makes us feel the weight of that decision. He keeps us guessing as to whether the world he enters—which looks the one in his drawings—is real or a hallucination, whether the yellow crystals he sniffs are drugs or some kind of portals.
“Bliss” is essentially “The Matrix” meets “Vanilla Sky,” just without any of the dazzling action. Cerebral questions arise throughout, especially in the non-simulated world, where everyone talks about science, and Greg says things like “the universe is sitting on the back of a tortoise.”
However, in establishing Greg as the moral and philosophical center through which the audience is supposed to experience the two different worlds, the viewer is liable to get whiplash from his rapidly changing outlook. He calls his life on earth “fake” and “simulated,” but is simultaneously troubled by the effect it has on his personal life. His character’s beliefs are so choppily pieced together within the film that he ultimately becomes an unreliable protagonist.
With serious problems in the script and edit, “Bliss” is objectively a misfire. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting ideas at play, and at times, you’ll want to know how it all ends. The biggest problem is that the film isn’t really sure how it wants to end or where it even is. Is this the future? The present? Is any of this real? Does it even matter? Maybe we’re all just 1s and 0s floating through a manufactured and malleable space. Maybe George Washington was in a cult, and the cult was into aliens, man. “Bliss” floats around these ideas, then proceeds to explain them like a stoned teenager at a house party. “Bliss” might be amusingly thoughtful euphoric mumbo jumbo if you’re high as a kite, but when stone-cold sober, it’s all just a metaphysical mess that’s more like an imaginary fifth or sixth ‘Matrix’ movie instead of the real deal Wachowskis original. [C-]