Come On, Get Happy: Cahill Finds Love in a Phoney Place with Simulation Sci-Fi
Director Mike Cahill has depended upon a higher degree of suspension of disbelief in his low-fi ponderings on human connections, so it’s no surprise his third feature Bliss demands the same open-mindedness of taking the subject matter seriously while forgiving the potentially uneven presentation. Starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek, it’s the most high-profile offering to date following the success of 2011’s Another Earth and the ambitious but somewhat flawed I, Origins (2014).
While the notable leads are somewhat distracting and uneasily navigate a forced chemistry, Cahill presents interesting and meaningful ideas about our innate need to experience opposing planes of emotions and situations to fully appreciate life as a complex continuum of connections.
A complex system involving pills allow them to travel back to their actual reality, a place called Bliss, where Isabel is a scientist who developed something called the Brain Box, an aquarium apparatus filled with brains which allows users to enter simulated environments to experience less than desirable situations (recalling Joseph Losey’s The Mind Benders, 1963). The world they live in is an utopic environment saved by technology, where humans are now free to develop creative pursuits. But Isabel has found people quickly take their privilege for granted, necessitating reminders of misery. Meanwhile, Greg is haunted by Emily (Nesta Cooper), a woman claiming to be one of his children in the simulated world, but who Isabel claims is a FPG (Fake Generated Person). Eventually, Greg must decide between these worlds.
At times, Bliss evokes an uneasy sense of slapstick between the opposing force fields of Hayek and Wilson, but it’s an interesting exercise in the slippery slope of solipsism unavoidable in discussions of simulation theory (that Cahill’s title opens the same weekend as Rodney Ascher’s documentary A Glitch in the Matrix is a novel coincidence, indeed).
Wilson’s hangdog Greg Wittle is immediately suspect as the perspective filtering the narrative, and Cahill gives plenty of hints and cues to suggest conclusions which might have felt stronger had there been greater ambiguity to the dual environments inhabited by Greg and Isabel. Supporting players like Joshua Leonard, Madeline Zima and even Bill Nye the Science Guy have little opportunity to make an impact, but Nesta Cooper as Wilson’s potentially simulated daughter provides the necessary strain of poignancy which really allows Bliss to encroach on the empathetic territory Cahill balanced effortlessly in Another Earth.
A pronounced visual scheme also aids interpretations of what’s really happening in Bliss, shot by Markus Forderer (I, Origins), and while thematically one might land on comparisons to The Matrix or Vanilla Sky (or Open Your Eyes, the film it’s based on), the palpable melancholy mixed with exaggerated themes evokes something like Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991).
Isabel’s research in showcasing how a utopia can never truly exist because happiness can only be appreciated if one also knows sadness is perhaps the most meaningful component of Bliss, as our ability to take life’s wonders for granted creates a ripple effect of desensitization through unchecked privilege and the potential dehumanization it could foster. Had Cahill pushed further, the troubling tendency to wallow in nostalgia could have been more prominent, as this scenario also aligns itself with something like the distressed protagonist of Kim Ki-duk’s Time (2006).