Maybe it is not a joke, definitely a hard fact to remind us even if it is 2021; the optimism that comes with is best with a grain of salt. That much should indeed be true with any cinematic experiences folks will be most privy to. From the safety of home, where the value of choice has never been greater. For one to avoid, look no further than Bliss, the presumably high-end sci-fi work from established genre director Mike Cahill (I Origins). Not having seen his two previous films, the ones that made him a significant name in blending scientific fantasy with raw human drama, I felt very uninitiated with the fallacy he promotes. I couldn’t click with it the same way his characters can so quickly transfer from one reality, or plot line, to the next. It may work for them, but to the viewer, there’s more than a crude sci-fi mystery to uncover.
Nothing seen in Bliss is ever clear, it’s as vague as it gets. Look at the first ten minutes alone, and the evidence is all over us. Greg Wittle (Owen Wilson) is the witless lab subject in a wry human experiment. His own sense of reality had been fading for some time, trying to bounce back after a major accident and a drawn out divorce. However, his work performance as a call center crony has taken a slide, and he’s mere moments away from termination. First we see Greg, he’s whittling the time away on conceptual drawings, arguing on his expiring pain meds, and harkening to a place in his mind he’d rather escape to. And a familiar face he could swear he saw once in a dream.
When the word goes down of his firing, Greg experiences a rare moment of physical action, leaving his boss for dead. That’s just the first sign his reality is finally melting. Second is that face being manifested for real. As Greg hides out in a nearby bar, he crosses paths with Isabel Clemens (Salma Hayek), a rather quizzical woman who claims what Greg is experiencing is nothing more than a computer simulation. Moreover, she’s holding the keys, by way of orange crystals, which must be ingested to achieve the proper level of mind transference, and strengthen the mildly heroic abilities the pair seem to share, manipulating any object or person. The further they go, the more Greg shares Isabel’s perception of the world, with Greg appearing more lost, confused, blindsided as he moves about. But that doesn’t matter, what Greg’s seeing is the mere fabricated interpretation of his excitable doodles. He’s all too eager to roll with it, fall in love, and behave a little recklessly, alongside another crazy person with some hidden traits of her own.
Cahill really gives his best efforts to intertwine a deep character study of a broken man, with a high-IQ, watered down Matrix/Chronicle rip-off, and the time-sensitive necessity of Greg’s concerned kids. Daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) and son Arthur (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) are on a hunt to track him down, in time for Emily’s high school graduation. The issue in play is the significant lack of focus all three subplots share. Having to share screen time while being unable to weave together can only equal to a heightened level of lazy incoherence. It’s easy enough to sense the makings of a solid story, but it’s just as clear to see it wasn’t fleshed out even near enough to justify 100 minutes and change. Forced to latch onto the idea that emotional bliss, that worthwhile satisfaction of life can be better manipulated through science, even that fell short, and the whole thing tires out within that first crucial half hour.
We get so little time to recognize Greg’s mental struggle or his painkiller addiction. Nor do we see much on the damage that’s done on his estranged family. It’s all merely skated by as Wilson and Hayek undergo this mind bending adventure, traveling from one plot nugget to another in a mild hurry. While we get a good grasp on their manic, often impulsive behavior, they each tackle it with an insulting over the top cadence, where even they are unsure just what kind of film they signed onto. The pair offer a few humorous moments on their delightful journey of crystal-based debauchery, proving their chemistry could prove palpable with a completely different movie. Same goes for completely reputable scientist Bill Nye, in his famous sky blue jacket, playing a skewered version of himself in a major cameo. These actors can commit to a role that works for them, and to a certain degree they experience no issues that aren’t pertained to the material itself.
The film’s greatest constant is the alteration of Greg’s mental state. Cahill has something spectacular here, and it’s weighed down by a great deal of nonsense. Otherwise, looking at this extremely absent-minded adventure through his broken perception of reality could be quite the beautiful thing. At times, through Cahill’s rusty approach, and by extension through the precision of DoP Markus Förderer (Independence Day: Resurgence), I could sense that beauty and that raw tragedy poured out to the established image. Had there been just been more to say with that, with how the fragile connection between reality and emotional fantasy is so unique, wherever else the story falls below the mark could’ve been more easily forgiven.
Cahill relies so heavily on the momentary landscape, the very falsity of the situation to propel his work from start to finish, reminding us just how slapdash (though hopefully not on purpose) Bliss is. If anyone expects the answer to embracing life’s positives as they come, best to look elsewhere. When really it’s as much of a mess as the leads in a state of drug-induced euphoria, which they stride in with no shame, definitive plan, or forethought of consequence. If that were the only option versus this same story redone to be better rooted into actual reality, I’d stick with my own reality. (D+; 2/5 Horns Up!)
Bliss is currently available to stream on Prime Video; rated R for drug content, language, some sexual material and violence; 103 minutes.