Bliss is a film from writer-director Mike Cahill, who brought us the modest yet beautiful and slow-burning sci-fi romance drama, Another Earth. His latest effort stars Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek, two stars of considerable talent who bring gravitas to a film that attempts to recapture the essence of Another Earth. Playing Greg, a divorcee who recently lost his job, he comes into contact with the mysterious Isabel, who’s living by her wits. Convinced they’re in a simulated world, Isabel takes Greg under her wing in an attempt to convert him to her way of thinking.
Wilson and Hayek are definitely not an obvious on-screen pairing and this has a bearing on Bliss. Wilson isn’t even all that comfortable in science fiction. While Woody Allen made time travel one of his special skills in Midnight in Paris and he’s demonstrated his versatility over the years, he’s much more suited to genres with at least a twist of comedy. A naturally funny, charming and likable actor, he’s branching out with this unconventional role. Hayek just seems to get spunkier with age, refusing to be demure with a take charge attitude. Together, the co-leads have a refreshing energy even if you don’t quite buy into a possible romantic connection. Maybe it would’ve worked better if they had the luxury of several seasons of television to draw closer as Mulder and Scully did?
Bliss is a strange brew, borrowing bits and pieces from better sci-fi movies. The simulated world, co-lead dynamic and duality echoes The Matrix. Trying to separate the real from the unreal, breaking through the illusion and freeing a mind has direct parallels. Then, Neo’s meet up with Trinity and guardian angel role have similarities with the film’s attempts to distinguish and come to terms with the rules of the two worlds. There’s also a bit of the Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu sci-fi thriller Cypher in terms of the washed out look and modest budget feel. Taking pills to give the mind newfound abilities echoes Project Power with a touch of Limitless. While Another Earth serves as a blueprint for the atmosphere and mood, the rest of the film feels uninspired or borrowed.
“You see that billboard, we’re movie stars in this world.”
Wilson and Hayek’s star power gives Bliss the benefit of the doubt but as much as they try to ramp it up, it’s limited by its half-baked screenplay. The film starts with promise as we discover an employee trying to break free from his four walls, setting up a sharp man-on-the-run plot and swathing it in the mystery of a multi-dimensional mind-bending sci-fi thriller. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t get better… stuck in trying to explain its world without paying heed to its characters or their motivations. It’s interesting to see Wilson and Hayek slumming it up as grifters, watching a man lose himself to a drug in a synthetic world and dealing with some of the unreal elements that have a real impact but these elements remain superficial.
The story centres around the co-leads and their bumbling misadventure, but it would’ve probably worked better as a comedy in the vein of Idiocracy. Both actors are versatile enough to do comedy and one of the most haunting things about Bliss is it’s lack of humour. It’s so desperately trying to be haunting, pensive and moody when it comes to style and atmosphere, it’s tone deaf to the bursts of unintentional comedy. This makes Bliss dry and overly serious, unable to reach the lofty heights of its ambitions in bringing this complex love story to life. The focus is on Greg and Isabel, but it actually would have done well to stick with the real love story and emotional core, the power of which, it only realises in the dying moments.
Bliss is competent enough to entertain with its charming co-stars in unconventional roles, curious futuristic inventions, strange paradigm and The Fisher King spirit. However, the undercurrent lacks self belief, the story is muddled, the casting is off-key and while modest it still seems too ambitious. A thin screenplay and dull familiarity are its biggest flaws, which become more pronounced with time. Not having a wink-wink sensibility, it doesn’t even have a so bad it’s good safety net to fall back on. Bliss is one of those projects that you’d want to hear about off-the-record from the writer-director because the net result is so discordant with its true potential.
The bottom line: Disconnected