Simulation theory is certainly all the rage right now. I hear there’s a new documentary out on the subject and Marvel’s “WandaVision” has fans glued to the screen (it’s awesome, seriously give it a watch). Amazon’s new movie “Bliss” follows this trend focusing on a man at a dead end in his life, played by Owen Wilson, who meets a strange woman played by Selma Hayek who uses yellow crystals to free their minds from what she claims to be a simulation world built around them. Written and directed by Mike Cahill, “Bliss” tries to ask some intriguing questions and makes a bold attempt to combine the simulation theory concepts with themes of drug addiction and homelessness. However, it ultimately fails to provide anything interesting or as thought provoking as it clearly hoped.
“Bliss” starts off by showing us a world saturated in grays and shadows. This is the world we are supposed to hate, a world much like our own where Owen Wilson’s Greg Wittle is fed up with his meager dead-end existence and estranged from his daughter (Nesta Cooper) and son (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.). His life changes when Selma Hayek’s Isabel, who seems to be able to control the world around them, offers him yellow crystals that allow Greg the power to control the world around them as well and thus the two begin to discuss the possibility that they are living inside a simulated reality. As you might guess this makes the film a not-so-subtle allegory for drug addiction with the crystals representing something akin to crystal meth. The story also incorporates blue crystals which allegedly free the duo from the simulation into a world of perfection filled with color and everything the duo could have ever dreamed of. The idea here is for us as viewers and the characters to see the world as inferior or superior to one another based on looks and perception alone, but we know that’s not how things work and we’re supposed to question if the idyllic reality is even the truth or the result of a drug fueled trip. “Bliss” takes the sci-fi trope of simulated realities and adapts it to a drug abuse story that, in the right hands, could have been an interesting idea however the result here is so drawn out, dry and frankly boring that it’s hard to appreciate the deeper elements of the narrative.
The acting, direction and writing don’t help as “Bliss” is constantly lacking energy or any sincerity at its core. Owen Wilson is textbook “wow” in this film with dry and lazy delivery that shifts to his trademark overacting in the face of amazing possibilities and realities. Selma Hayek also overacts often shifting between chaotic paranoia and focused confidence in her theory of simulated realities. While the transition between her emotional states should have been an interesting look at the varying personalities of drug addicts, there’s no nuance in her character at all. Not to mention the two leads don’t exactly have the best chemistry with their blooming romance feeling wooden and unbelievable. The pacing is also horribly slow and unengaging making “Bliss” feel like a slog to sit through. The inability to do anything remotely interesting with the film’s deeper ideas or delve properly into Greg’s existential crisis (he way too easily accepts his newfound knowledge of simulation theory) strip away the most intriguing elements of “Bliss” while doubling down on the darkness associated with a mind infected by drugs or a longing for a world beyond our own. There were so many interesting ideas this movie could have explored, so many deeper meanings it could have juggled, but it settles for watering down and overexplaining its complicated theming making “Bliss” both too confusing and too simple for its own good.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who hates thinking films. I love a good thought-provoking feature. In fact, those are among my favorite kinds of movies to watch, but you have to provide something interesting to make it worth the investment and “Bliss” doesn’t. It has noble goals with inspiration clearly grounded in drug use and a theory of reality that is continuously growing in popularity, but when you decide to go into an open-ended sci-fi feature like this it’s important to provide just enough answers and context to actually spark insight in the viewer while also allowing them to fill in the blanks. While there are plenty of unknowns in “Bliss”, especially concerning which reality is actually real, it’s still clearly a metaphor for drug abuse and by the time the credits role it’s hard to care about what’s true and what’s not, you just kind of want the movie to end. The exposition only takes you so far in a movie where you, the viewer, are supposed to be figure things out for yourself. When you linger on ideas as long as this movie does without doing anything creative or interesting with them it all comes off as a “look at how insightful I am” kind of picture that talks down to the viewer more than encourages them to become invested in the deeper meaning behind it all. That, to me, is how “Bliss” feels, like a pretentious mess that forces the viewer to see things a certain way while simultaneously teasing us with the possibility that there’s more than meets the eye.
“Bliss” was anything but blissful for me. It was slow, meandering, frustrating and not the least bit engaging despite its heavy theming and admittedly creative ideas. The acting feels either too intense or too restrained and while it clearly has good intentions of putting a focus on drug addiction “Bliss” gets too bogged down in its own self importance and symbolism to convey its ideas properly or offer much of anything truly interesting for viewers to hold on to. I won’t go so far as to call it incoherent because sadly that proves to be one of its worst qualities, that it is actually TOO easy to follow and holds the viewer’s hand much of the way, but “Bliss” does feel ignorant of how to properly convey its themes in a way that takes viewers on the soul-searching introspective journey about existence and substance abuse it clearly wanted to explore. Good intentions do not always make for good films. It requires competent and inspired filmmaking and writing and while there are shades of that in “Bliss” there’s far from enough to make it anything I’d recommend.