Bliss and all the images you see in this review are owned by Amazon Studios
Directed by Mike Cahill
So hey! Either studios are getting bolder in 2021 and are actually releasing stuff, or I’m finally paying attention and now have about two months’ worth of releases to look forward to across my various streaming services! I’m definitely ready to get back on that movie reviewing horse (even though this review is coming out almost a week after the movie did), and what better film to herald this renewed vigor than a movie literally named after a word for happiness! So does Amazon’s sci-fi take on a less action heavy Matrix (or a less dreamlike Eternal Sunshine) prove to be as good as the title promises, or is the true bliss the moment you decide to turn the movie off? Let’s find out!!
Gregg Wittle (Owen Wilson) is your typical upper middle class miserable white dude. He’s recently divorced, he hates his job, and while he loves his kids they’re pretty much grown now and there seems to be some issues there he doesn’t feel like confronting. Instead, he spends his time drawing pictures of a better life which may be cathartic for him but because that’s ALL he does at work he ends up getting fired. Just as well, I mean the place is a dismal office building with all life and personality scrubbed out of it, but in the real world you can’t just get fired and let everything fall to the wayside. Or can you!? Drinking his misery away, Gregg meets a woman named Isabel Clemens (Salma Hayek) who recognizes him as someone special and whisks him away on an adventure of homelessness and telekinetic powers! Why? Well according to Isabella, this is a fake reality that she built and that nothing here matters! The people are fake, the boredom is fake, the lousy jobs are all fake, and she’s here to show Mr. Wittle that’s he’s not so Wittle after all! Seems like an enticing proposition and there is certainly some evidence to support this, but there are also many questions as well that Isabel either has a convenient technobabble excuse for or is outright hesitant to confront, so does Greg dare to hope that his boring meaningless life can be changed in an instant by this benevolent benefactor? If everything is a simulation though, doesn’t that mean his kids aren’t real either? How would you even define if they are real if the feelings are genuinely there? Can we call Morpheus in to explain this? He’s pretty good at this kind thing.s
You know what? Perhaps at another time I wouldn’t have had as much goodwill towards this movie but considering the last few things I saw were almost uniformly overlong and tedious, I’m gonna give this movie credit for not boring me and not overstaying its welcome. The premise is definitely borrowed from bigger and better movies and it definitely has a whiff of pretention about it, but there’s also a measure of ambition here that I found to be quite refreshing and just the kind of movie I need at a time where everything I see feels like run of the mill slop. There’s a general numbness to that COVID has brought to the world, and with studios being so gun shy about releasing films without theaters it’s felt so much harder to find things worth talking about; either with the few big blockbusters daring to show themselves being mostly disappointing or smaller films with something interesting to say getting lost in the shuffle. This is no masterpiece and it’s probably not going to get anywhere NEAR my top ten list, but it manages to do just enough to remind me of going to the theater and seeing something with some actually PASSION behind it; a feeling that has been missing for far longer than I care to admit.
For all the praise I just heaped on this movie, it doesn’t exactly start out strong as the movie spends way too long simply navel gazing and trying on different thematic hats; none of which REALLY seems to fit right and most of which are kind of obnoxious. I mean sure, I’m probably the LAST person to talk about white dude’s overly tuned resentment towards an unfulfilled work life as that’s basically a summary of my own non-writing career (did I really just call this a “career”?), but Owen Wilson spending his work day drawing pictures and day dreaming at a company LITERALLY called Technical Support is a TAD on the nose and the movie never really grows out of that overly broad mindset. Granted it does lead to some interesting stuff visually and I think the opening crisis that sends Owen Wilson on his strange journey is darkly hilarious, but it just spends so much time on being obnoxiously cute that everything else feels vestigial around it. You’d think that a movie about a man trying to find happiness would have more than five minutes of his kids in it (the son is in the movie for a whopping TWO scenes) but I guess they needed more time to tell us how much people don’t need phones or that shelter is overrated. The first act of this movie has all the eye-rolling insufferable sincerity of hipsters dumpster diving for food, but thankfully gives way to more interesting ideas after it gets all that out of its system.
Then you get into whatever tortured sci-fi lore this movie is trying to lay out for us, and it doesn’t make the tiniest bit of sense; not just its own tortured internal logic involving magic powers and crystals, but the simple knowledge and motivations of its characters seem to only be written on a per act basis. Salma Hayek, for all the effort she is clearly putting into this (all of which is very much appreciated) is struggling to build a consistent character and the script is just not there for her. She’s clearly SUPPOSED to have a plan here, but the outlines and boundaries of the experiment are never clearly defined so it’s hard to feel any stakes in what she does or to feel tension when things start to go sideways. She has a lot in common with Ed Harris’s character from The Truman Show as they both belie a deeper selfishness under performativity objective goals, but the movie never seems to make that connection in a consistent way and never pays off her villainy which leaves the character arc feeling utterly unfulfilled by the end of it. Owen Wilson manages to have an easier time of it as his character is intentionally a blank slate so he gets to bare his heart on his sleeve, but even he seems a bit TOO eager to run away from everything to join this woman. Perhaps there’s an element of suggestion in the programming of this virtual world that pushed him in that direction, but I’ll be darned if the movie adequately explained it either way!
So with all this negativity I’m feeling about it from its overt sense of self-satisfaction to its complete lack of consistency, why did I leave the movie feeling more positive than negative about it? Was it simply low expectations? Well… kinda; In that a lot of the movie is about tackling that feeling. It’s a movie that may not have a clue on how to FIX anything, but it does a remarkable job outlining the problem; it’s called Bliss and not OWEN WILSON’S MATRIX KNOCK OFF for a reason and it’s because it’s a movie about exploring happiness, which is when it finds its footing and presents its best self. The world that Owen Wilson finds himself is heavily stylized but not that different from what many of us feel on a day to day basis; gray, drab, looking for something that we just can’t seem to reach, and doing it day in and day out. We see people around us who we assume have themselves together yet don’t seem to have ambitions beyond their small measure of success. Are they TRULY happy? They certainly seem happier than Owen Wilson who can’t stop looking for something that he doesn’t seem willing to seek, and even when he gets everything he wants and is whisked away by a beautiful goddess of freedom, he can’t let go of everything. Does it make him sadder to hold onto the things he cares about? Does it make him a better person that he can’t let go, and how much should that really matter? Sadly it muddles its metaphors way too much for it to have anything genuine or insightful to say about self-fulfillment, responsibility, or self-destruction, but it does paint an interesting picture of life that may connect with you even if the story itself doesn’t. On top of that, it does have some fun visual flair here and there as evidence of this being a virtual world can be seen from time to time in the background which is always appreciated in movies like this. Doesn’t make up for the lack of Kung-Fu fight scenes or telekinetic battles, but it’s something at least!
Movies about escaping from something fake to experience what is real is one of the most standard tropes in sci-fi, but comparing this film to perhaps the trope’s most popular example The Matrix creates an interesting clash of ideas. In The Matrix, people wanted to escape a life of relative happiness (if one of boredom) to one of misery and danger because it’s real compared to the lies the machines are telling us. In this movie, Owen Wilson learns that his miserable life is false and there’s genuine bliss to be found in what is supposed to be real. What’s more cathartic to experience, and what would you ultimately choose in these disparate choices? Perhaps what people want more than happiness is meaning, and The Matrix provides a very clear cut path to finding it; wake up from what THE MAN is telling you and leave your dull pointless life behind to embrace the suffering and knowledge of the real world to put you above the sheep that are still asleep. This movie isn’t as simple as that as Owen Wilson essentially has to figure out if there’s more meaning in the life he built while miserable or the uneventful happiness that everyone else is saying is real. Would you choose simplicity and leisure or risk misery for meaning; and perhaps even a false sense of meaning at that? As I said, it doesn’t amount to much as the movie’s incoherent mechanics force ridiculous situations onto the characters which muddy the waters and robs some amount of choice from the characters, but in between all the nonsense there is something worth watching and I would definitely recommend seeing this if you have the chance. Perhaps I got more out of it than most, but it at least tries to say something which is more than a lot of the fluff we’ve gotten recently. Now if you excuse me, I have to start writing my Matrix prequel all about Cypher! Hey, if they could turn Maleficent into a three dimensional character then why not Joey Pants!?