Thursday, February 04, 2021

Cahill’s Bliss

Stop me if you've heard this one before: the world we think we know might just be a computer simulation. That is what Greg Wittle is about to learn, when he meets the woman who claims to have created it—and he is inclined to listen, because she is played by Salma Hayek. The Wachowskis’ The Matrix did not open on tomorrow’s date in 1999, so it is just a coincidence two “simulation world” films are releasing this Friday (the other being Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix). Of course, there are no coincidences in the Matrix, so maybe these two films really do prove something. Either way, director-screenwriter Mike Cahill’s Bliss does its best to question our conception of reality when it starts streaming tomorrow on Amazon Prime.

One thing is for sure: the world that we start in definitely does not cater to Wittle. He is bitterly divorced from his ex-wife and estranged from his son. Only his daughter Emily still maintains ties. To make matters worse, Wittle will soon be fired from his job at a customer support firm (amusingly named “Technical Difficulties”) and he will then kill his boss through an unlikely chain of accidental events. Fortunately, the woman in the bar tells him she can fix things.

That would be Isabel Clemens and she claims she invented the simulated world they are in. She gloms onto him, because she claims he is “real” and not some kind programmed NPC. The weird thing is, she seems to be right. It does indeed appear she can make things happen and mess with “unreal” people. Eventually, she gives Wittle a glimpse of the “true” world, which matches the idealized drawings he compulsively sketched. The drawback is his beloved daughter Emily isn’t “real” too.

Cahill riffs on some of the ideas introduced in films like
The Matrix and Empathy Inc in interesting ways, but his vision of competing realities is rather muddled. Instead of mind-bending paradoxes, he just gives us a headache. There are often logic gaps in science fiction, but they are outright at war with each in Bliss. On the other hand, Bliss offers an unusually thoughtful and mature meditation on the question of love. Can you really love someone who does not truly “exist?” If so, then what?

Owen Wilson is perfectly cast as the slightly dopey, considerably out-of-his-depth Wittle. A lot of the film is well within his safety zone, but he has several acutely painful (in a deeply human way) scenes with Nesta Cooper, who is terrific as Emily Wittle. Honestly, the relentlessly manic character of Clemens is riddled with inconsistencies and credibility issues, but it is still fun to watch Hayek’s flamboyant performance. Unfortunately, Cahill also serves up some distracting in-joke cameos from Bill Nye (the Bowtie Guy) and Slavoj Zizek—seriously, get over yourselves.

Another Earth was strangely under-heralded for the way it fused science fiction elements with emotional-resonant character development arc. This time around, he handles the emotional dynamics much better than the sf business. Admittedly, that is the harder part, but the muddled Matrix-ey stuff just stands out so conspicuously. Bliss definitely earns a mixed review, but there is probably just enough for genre fans to warrant checking it out, if they already have Amazon Prime, where it premieres tomorrow (2/5).