‘Bliss’ review: nothing euphoric about Owen Wilson’s muddled sci-fi

The quirky funnyman pairs with Salma Hayek in a high-concept romance

It’s a shame this ambitious sci-fi film from director Mike Cahill, who previously made the promising indies Another Earth and I Origins, isn’t a little better. It definitely hinges on an interesting premise: does the human race need to experience a hint of bitterness to appreciate the sweet? But sadly, Cahill’s execution is better visually than narratively, making Bliss‘ vision of the future too vague to be fully engaging.

It begins with Greg (Owen Wilson), a middle-aged middle-manager at a dull-looking company, being summoned to his boss’ office. Greg seems to be spending his workday popping pills and drawing his fantasy waterside home, so it’s no surprise when he’s given the sack. It’s much more shocking when Greg stands up too quickly, sending his boss (Steve Zissis) flying towards his desk, where he cracks his head so hard he dies on the spot. Greg panics and scarpers to the nearest bar, where he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), a scrappy-looking stranger who somehow knows exactly what he’s just done.

Bliss
Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson in ‘Bliss’. Credit: Amazon Prime Video

Isabel informs Greg that he’s “real” – something which apparently sets him apart from everyone else in the bar, except for her – and fixes his dead boss problem. She also demonstrates her telekinetic powers and gives him some yellow crystals which allow him to hone his own. Soon they’re having a lark at a roller rink where they send everyone from a sexist douchebag to a judgemental grandma flying with a mere flick of their wrists. Playfully shot by Cahill, it’s the film’s most entertaining scene.

Bliss‘ early promise dissipates when Isabel starts fretting that Greg is too invested in the world they’re in, which feels real to him, but is actually just a simulation. After procuring a handful of blue crystals from her sketchy associate Kendo (Ronny Chieng), they snort them to catapult themselves out of the simulation and into the real world. Where the simulation is polluted and marred by poverty, the real world is a sun-soaked, vaguely Mediterranean paradise constructed by scientists. When Greg realises that he really lives in the fantasy home he sketched in his office, he’s understandably awestruck. Isabel explains that the simulation world only exists inside the Brain Box, her brilliant invention to remind the human race how lucky they are to be living in their new, utopian surroundings.

A predictable collision of reality and simulation follows, but Bliss might overcome its more derivative moments if it weren’t so filled with half-baked plot devices; the whole business of blue and yellow crystals dictating behaviour in the simulation just feels silly. Throughout, Greg’s relationship with his simulation daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) is supposed to supply some sentimental heft, but it’s too thinly written to be affecting. His relationship with Isabel isn’t entirely convincing either, perhaps because Wilson’s laidback style doesn’t quite gel with Hayek’s tendency to overplay the emotional beats. Still, their love affair feels more authentic than Isabel’s painfully basic Brain Box results presentation to her highfalutin science peers. It’s a risible scene which exposes the film’s Achilles heel: Cahill’s future world just isn’t convincing enough to spark much bliss in this one.

Details

  • Director: Mike Cahill
  • Starring: Salma Hayek, Owen Wilson
  • Release date: February 5 (Amazon Prime Video)
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