Combustible Celluloid
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With: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Josh Leonard, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye, Slavoj Žižek
Written by: Mike Cahill
Directed by: Mike Cahill
MPAA Rating: R for drug content, language, some sexual material and violence
Running Time: 104
Date: 02/05/2021

Bliss (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Reality Plights

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Premiering Friday on Amazon Prime, Bliss — like other fantasy-based movies that have arrived during the COVID-19 pandemic — offers a fascinating chance to escape.

What if, just what if, this world of rampant disease, political unrest, and economic insanity were all fake, a computer simulation, and could simply be exited?

Yes, the idea was already used, and admittedly much better, in The Matrix (1999), but like the repeating day of Groundhog Day, it's an idea that can be continuously explored.

With its scattershot array of sub-themes, Bliss is too chunky to be really philosophical, but its fantasy aspect is most appealing.

Our two leads are also appealing. Owen Wilson brings a world-weary heaviness to his Greg Wittle, a man who occupies an office in some company wherein the cubicle-bound employees can be heard simultaneously chanting to customers on phones, "we're sorry."

Greg looks beaten down. His hair is slicked back merely to avoid the effort of combing it. He barely works at all, instead passing the time making elaborate drawings of some fantasy dream land.

His daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) calls to invite him to her graduation, but Greg's divorce from Emily's mother was apparently so nasty that he balks.

He also seems to be addicted to pain pills, as he futilely attempts to renew a prescription before being called into the boss's office.

The boss (Steve Zissis), of course, fires him. He accidentally knocks the boss backwards into a desk, killing him. Greg hides the body, and dashes to the bar across the street.

There, he meets Isabel Clemens (Salma Hayek), who tells him that he's "real" and does not need to worry about the accidental death.

Isabel is sort of a homeless gypsy who demonstrates what appear to be telekinetic powers, spilling a drink from a tray across the room with a wave of her hand.

She shows Greg that he has them too. She tells him that it really doesn't matter what they do, since all the people around them are "not real."

So they have a good time bouncing around town, knocking skaters off their feet at a roller rink, and living at Isabel's elaborate, intricately-decorated homeless encampment.

It turns out that everything is a computer simulation, invented by Isabel, and it's designed this way on purpose. The "real" world is a gorgeous utopia (matching Greg's drawings), where our two leads appear clean and attractive, like movie stars again.

The hellhole "fake" world is meant to give visitors perspective, and allow them to more fully appreciate the beautiful "real" one.

A small role by science guy Bill Nye lends the movie at least a pretend idea of scientific credibility.

Unfortunately, Bliss stumbles on a few blocky plot items that might have been better off left out. First, Isabel and Greg's "powers" — and, weirdly, their ability to exit the simulation — depend on them procuring colored gems, which are either ingested or "snorted."

They must find these things like common junkies, slinking around in sleazy sinister buildings, and making shady deals.

If this whole thing is meant to be like a virtual reality game for people in the "real" world, why did Isabel make it so hard to get out of it?

Then, Emily becomes a major subplot, and even though the entire movie takes place from Greg's point of view, the movie occasionally cuts to scenes of Emily, who is apparently searching everywhere for her missing, and homeless, father.

So another question is: if Emily is "fake," then why spend all this time on her? How does Greg feel about his beloved daughter being nothing more than a video game character?

Truthfully, Greg does have quite a lot to process in this story, especially since he can't remember his "real" identity. There are a million questions, and shifting alliances, as he — and we — mull over what might or might not actually be real.

Writer and director Mike Cahill fortunately leaves enough ambiguity in his story, and drops enough intriguing little puzzles in the backgrounds (note printed signs), to tingle the synapses.

Cahill is also known for Another Earth (2011) and I Origins (2014), both science fiction movies that, like Bliss, strike a slightly awkward balance between ideas and emotions, sometimes not going far enough, and sometimes going too far.

Yet all three movies have a personal touch, as they all attempt to explore the meaning of identity, using perspective to ask fresh questions about who we are and what we might be doing here.

The films all take a quiet, low-fi approach to sci-fi, with an emphasis on ideas rather than on fighting, on emotions over visual FX. That's a rarity, and, despite its occasional awkwardness, Bliss is still worth getting lost in.

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