“Bliss”: Two and one-half stars. Available on Amazon Prime. Rated R. Contains drug use, crude language, some sexual material and violence. 103 minutes.
There’s powerful “The Matrix” energy (minus the Bullet Time) surrounding “Bliss,” a sci-fi flick in which a sad-sack divorced dad named Greg (Owen Wilson) suddenly learns that everything and almost everyone around him — his dead-end job in a dumpy town, his angry boss (Steve Zissis), his estranged teenage son (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), the daughter who loves him (Nesta Cooper) — isn’t real.
Early in the film, the arrival in his life of a cool, sexy know-it-all named Isabel (Salma Hayek) is eye-opening: Swallowing some yellow crystals enables Greg to harness telekinetic powers that let him manipulate the people and things around him, like a god among mortals.
Snorting a handful of blue crystals up his nose boots him out of the simulacrum, and back into reality — a paradisiacal seaside community that looks like it’s somewhere in the Aegean.
So far, so red pill/blue pill. All of which is to say that the film initially feels shamelessly derivative of the Wachowskis’ most famous film franchise, without bringing anything especially fresh to a familiar idea.
But hold on. Check the name again in the writer-director box: Mike Cahill. Isn’t he the guy who broke out in 2011 with “Another Earth,” a cerebral sci-fi drama about parallel universes, in the form of twin planet Earths, on each of which, it is surmised, live doppelgängers of everyone alive?
And isn’t he the dude who followed that up with the brain-twister “I, Origins,” about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls?
Yes. Yes, it is.
Cahill, who is pals and collaborators with actress/writer Brit Marling and filmmaker Zal Batmanglij, has a thing about duality, it would seem, not to mention unanswerable questions about selfhood.
That becomes apparent after a while, when it’s made clear that “Bliss” isn’t really all that interested in trafficking in the stuff of mass-market science fiction: the bells and whistles, in the form of nifty hardware, special effects and the like.
Rather, Cahill’s latest film is an exercise in existential inquiry. The bar in which Greg meets Isabel is called Plato’s Dive, in a rather clumsy allusion to the philosopher’s Allegory of the Cave, in which Man is presented as living in a state of ignorance of the truth that lies beyond our subjective senses.
That’s not the only appearance of a philosopher in a film that, right off the bat, seems like one would be one too many: Slavoj Zizek — in real life a Slovenian thinker, known for deliberately provocative ideas, who has been called the “Borat of philosophy” — appears as himself, or what looks like a hologram of himself, in a fleeting party-scene cameo in which he delivers a monologue about visitors from heaven checking in on the residents of hell.
The implicit question is about how we define happiness and misery, and how our perception of one can define the other.
Greg ultimately has a choice to make: to stay in a dingy fantasy world where he has a fake daughter who really loves him, or to return to a sanitized, and somewhat surreally plastic, Eden.
It’s an interesting question, the mere asking of which elevates what is otherwise already a cliche.