Around the turn of the millennium, reality-bending movies like The Truman Show and The Matrix featured protagonists discovering that their agreeably humdrum lives were hiding a bigger, more complicated world. Two decades later, these concerns seem a little quaint, even for the white male heroes who spend so much time turning over their ennui in their cubicles. Mike Cahill’s sci-fi film Bliss is savvy enough to tweak the formula: The world that slightly spacey worker drone Greg (Owen Wilson) initially inhabits isn’t subtly constricting, but actively gray and ugly. And the alternate world offered by Isabel (Salma Hayek) isn’t full of messy complexities. It’s a full-on futuristic utopia, concealed by Greg’s own brain.
That utopia isn’t glimpsed until halfway through, but the advertisements for Bliss go further, more or less summarizing the first 70% of the film. Once you’ve seem the trailer, what’s left to discover is Wilson’s suitability for playing a middle-aged depressive. Although he’s shaded this persona before in movies like The Darjeeling Limited and Midnight In Paris, here there’s no trace of his signature surfer-dude affability, or even his familiar physical image—at least at first. His blond hair is muted and slicked back, he’s stuck and distracted while working at some kind of customer service firm, and his interactions with his daughter, Emily (Nesta Cooper), aren’t strained so much as suffused with an undefined sense of loss.
So when Greg abruptly suffers an actual loss of that miserable job (and a darker mishap alongside it), he’s particularly receptive to a mysterious woman approaching him in a bar and showing off her uncanny powers to manipulate the world around them. With the flick of a wrist, she can mess with the lights or send a waiter tumbling to the floor, explaining that any collateral damage she causes doesn’t actually matter; she knows which people are just part of a simulation and which, like Greg, are “real.” Greg, for his part, is both intrigued and passive enough to go along, making him a quick study in Isabel’s superpower-like tricks. Soon they’re smoking, sexing, and committing mild assault in a roller rink. Eventually, they exit Greg’s gray, depressing world entirely, and wake up in movie-star lighting and color correction. The real world, Greg learns, is a blue-skied, lens-flared paradise.
Why was Greg’s personal Matrix so deathly depressing? Isabel, revealing herself as a scientist and architect of the simulation, explains her reasoning: With an environmentally stabilized Earth now enriched with universal basic income, humans need some help generating an appreciation for their utopian reality. Thus, she’s created a realistically rendered alt-world that will give them a taste of what they’ve left behind. To quote yet another millennial mind-bender, “The sweet is never as sweet without the sour.”
Unfortunately, Bliss never reaches the loopy heights, or the genuinely oddball personality, of Vanilla Sky. It does sustain a free-floating tension similar to what Cahill summoned for his low-tech indie sci-fi movies Another Earth and I Origins; here, working with bigger name actors and what looks like a bigger budget, he’s made a conceptual puzzler that’s compelling in its broad strokes and sketchy in its details—the opposite of some of his past efforts. It’s easy enough to attribute some awkward moments to the all-important simulation, keeping the audience on its toes about whether or not a scene is supposed to feel off. Ultimately, though, most of what toggling between realities accomplishes is merely a free-floating excuse for its frequent moments of dramatic ungainliness. (At least they’re evenly distributed: Greg’s gray-world firing is just as unconvincing as Isabel emphatically presenting the results of her simulation experiment in the better place.)
If Greg’s state of mind starts to feel like a metaphor for something else, well, there’s a decent chance that feeling will materialize into a plot turn. It’s easy to get ahead of the story in Bliss, and its final stretch has a comedy-sketch capriciousness—Hayek and Wilson sporting matching denim jackets make them look like recurring SNL characters—played with deadly seriousness. On the other hand, the film’s protracted closing shots settle into something more affecting (that is, until the movie gilds the lily by returning for a postscript). The emotional impact of those shots comes mainly from Wilson, who’s captured in several dialogue-free long takes. His signature drawl is silenced, and his face is forced to do work the screenplay hasn’t. He gives a weighty performance, delivered into a simulated void.