The world at the beginning of Mike Cahill’s new film “Bliss”—opening Friday on Amazon Prime—feels familiarly dystopian. The streets are filthy, populated by theatrically pockmarked drug dealers and prostitutes who openly solicit johns in sputtering jalopies. We see signage and news reports broadcasting every burdensome calamity: famine, income inequality, climate change. Everything is underlit. The only businesses we encounter are fast-food restaurants, rehab clinics and a call center called Technical Difficulties, where Greg Whittle (Owen Wilson) works in a drab office. When we meet him—divorced, addicted to painkillers, unable to reconnect with his daughter—he is procrastinating his inevitable termination from the company.
If the veritable hellscape of “Bliss” seems a tad exaggerated, there’s a reason for it, for one cannot have a nirvana without its Gomorrah, and we will become acquainted with both. I will tread as lightly as I can with plot here, because “Bliss” is a minefield of spoilers. Suffice it to say that in his darkest hour, Greg encounters a savior, Isabel (Salma Hayek), and their meeting is no accident, for only she can offer a different way of living.
The idea that we are existing inside a simulation has been an irresistible science-fiction trope for generations, probably peaking in the ‘90s with “Existenz” and the beginning of the “Matrix” dynasty, and finding millennial adherents thanks to “Inception” and the “Ready Player One” franchise—not to mention the occasional hot take from provocateur Elon Musk. This concept is at the core of “Bliss,” a different approach to a now-old saw, one that strives for poetry and perhaps romance over action and special effects.
It mostly misses those marks. Cahill stacks convolutions atop convolutions, keeping his audience fumbling for coherence with each reveal of information. I didn’t care enough about the characters to follow the filmmaker’s Byzantine developments, in part because their psychologies have taken a backseat to the narrative’s speculative precociousness, and in part because the necessary chemistry between Hayek and Wilson just isn’t there, even when it’s supposed to be.
Cahill is a veteran of some of the finest character-driven sci-fi of the aughts, collaborating with actor Brit Marling on standouts like “Another Earth” and “I Origins,” so we know he’s capable of transcendent work. There’s a good deal of underlying commentary in “Bliss;” it’s a cautionary tale of unchecked technological ambition, and maybe even a parable of drug addiction. It just doesn’t gel. “Bliss” ultimately feels like a handed-down inversion of “The Matrix” with a dash of “Westworld,” but with an emotional connection to the material that is lost in all of those ones and zeros.