Does Bliss take place in some quasi-futuristic alternate dimension or in the contemporary world? This is the central question of the film, if not for ourselves. Coming to Amazon Prime February 5th from writer-director Mike Cahill, Bliss stars Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek as a couple who have either discovered the portal to a telekinetic utopia or are circling an increasingly hallucinogenic drain. It’s an exquisite mindfuck that manages to synthesize every fantasy of Elon Musk-style techno futurism into a story about… well, if I told you exactly what it was about, it might spoil the ending.
We open on Greg, played by Owen Wilson, who works at an odd little firm called Technical Difficulties, which feels straight out of Her or a Charlie Kaufman script. Dutiful workers spend all day answering phones and delivering into the receiver variations on the same script: “I’m sorry to hear you’re having technical difficulties…”
We catch up with Greg just as he’s about to be fired, on account of he’s been spending his days staring out the window, making detailed drawings of the dream house he sees in his recurrent fantasies instead of answering the phone and apologizing to strangers about their technical difficulties. He gets a surprise reprieve from the hangman’s noose and flees to a bar across the street to clear his head. It’s there he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), who seems to be telekinetic. “My powers don’t work on you; you’re a real person,” a surprised Isabel tells Greg, while dimming lights with her fingers and moving other patrons around like chess pieces on a touch screen.
We spend basically the entirety of the rest of the movie living in Greg’s red pill/blue pill moment. On whether to believe that there is some utopian future from whence Isabel came and that this dingy, polluted, graffiti-covered late-capitalist jungle world where Greg’s children still live is just a simulation; or whether it’s the utopia itself that’s a figment of his mind.
The beauty of Bliss isn’t so much the answer to this question, but the way Cahill manages to weave in basically every Silicon Valley vision of glorious future. Automation, asteroid mining, and gene replacement basically end suffering as we know it, and reality, the shitty one, actually might be a simulation, just like Elon says. Of course! Finally an answer to why a just God would allow such suffering and why my back always hurts.
Bliss‘s “cool future world” feels like an obvious parody of tech utopianism, but strange doings are also afoot in shitty dystopia. Things appear and disappear, Greg’s co-workers seem both predatory and cult-like, and their business model is like something out of Kafka or Catch 22. They compete with workers in India and China to be the best at reading rote corporate apologies. It’s simultaneously unspeakably dystopian and too close to home.
Greg’s competing visions of reality are reflections of how we see our own. Are good times just a few tweaks away, or are we on a fast-track to total entropy? It wouldn’t be so easy for Greg to believe that there’s a “real” world out there somewhere in which smart people have solved things like pollution, homelessness, and mass inequality if his regular world didn’t seem so capricious and shitty.
Cahill is so effective at blurring the lines and making both “realities” feel equally plausible that it’s hard not to feel your own reality attenuating as you watch it. Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek, something of an odd couple on paper, are also perfectly cast. Who better than Owen Wilson to play a guy who’s alternately disheveled and sort of losing it; and contented by his worry-free life of endless leisure? Who better than Salma Hayek to play a woman who is either Owen Wilson’s tragic pseudo-homeless siren, or his ground-breaking co-guinea pig in building a glorious future? Certainly, we could read Isabel as Greg’s Eve, tempting him with the tree of knowledge and whatnot, but at this point Bible allusions aren’t especially interesting.
In the end, it all turns out to be a grand metaphor. It’s an elegant one, and it makes perfect sense (sorry to play coy, I’m trying not to ruin it for you), but maybe that’s the problem. I’m sure I’d be furious with a non-ending, but the way Bliss wraps up in a neat little bow also doesn’t feel quite right either, not for a movie that’s so effecting at messing with your own sense of reality. Or maybe I just got so lost in Bliss‘s world that I was reluctant to leave. Sometimes a metaphor turns out to be more interesting than the thing it was attempting to explain.