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‘Bliss’ Asks Its Audience to Contemplate Much More Than The Idea of Happiness

February 18, 2021
3 min read time

The tagline of writer-director Mike Cahill’s new genre bending sci-fi action romance for Amazon sounds simple enough: “Chase something real.” But Cahill in fact gets his audience to deeply question: What is real, and what’s worth chasing? This might be the film's biggest merit. In a world of simulations, an audience member can project an awful lot of their own reality onto the picture, and for Cahill, that was exactly the point. 

The filmmaker drew inspiration for the movie from all over. More than anything though, he states, “I wanted to make a movie about the fragility of the human mind. Different people have different ways of seeing the world, abstract ideas, feelings and emotions. I wanted to take on the challenge and beauty of a family member reaching into another world.”

Cahill went on to say that Plato’s Cave and Voltaire’s "Plato’s Dream" influenced his creation of the worlds in Bliss, and the simulation within the film is not easily definable. Greg, played by a forever empathetic Owen Wilson, is having a very bad day. He seems consumed with drawing another world as he sits at his uninspired desk at his job in an office called Technical Difficulties. Things go from bad to worse when Greg is fired and then accidentally kills his boss with an unexplainable force that emanates from him. This is where things get weird. Very weird. 

Greg then meets Isabel (played by a magnetic Salma Hayek) who is very happy to see him when he seeks solace in a nearby bar. She happily proclaims, “You’re real!” Greg isn't so sure what she’s going on about until she happens to know about what just transpired back in Greg’s boss’ office and calls out the moment when Greg’s boss is going to fall from the window (which he promptly does). Not sure what else to do, Greg goes on the run with the very persuasive Isabel, who continues to call him “my guy” and their connection becomes instant and undeniable. 

Here’s where "Plato’s Dream" begins to feel persuasive in Greg’s world. In Voltaire's story, the god-like Demiurgos charges a number of lesser "superbeings" with the task of making their own worlds. A superbeing known as Demogorgon creates Earth and is quite happy with it — until he is heavily criticized for it. While there is no Demogorgon in Bliss, there are alternate realities that Greg experiences and his partner Isabel is somewhat responsible for. She is a doctor creating a great experiment to help those with skewed, unhappy perspectives rediscover the idea of “bliss.” 

Cahill states that the idea of the artist making imperfect work, and if that work is made boldly, can one find satisfaction in the flaws? heavily influenced him. For Greg and Isabel, finding a place of acceptance and peace is part of their journey. For Cahill, their quest became an exercise in cinematic synesthesia: (typically known as experiencing a sense in multiple ways at once, like hearing a sound but also picturing it as a color).

He wanted to take the idea of cinematic synesthesia a step further in Bliss “by attempting to create Greg’s interior landscape and let his emotional, chemical and mental state dictate the color palette. There’s a certain sense of doubt in the truth of the world because we are so immersed in his enhanced point of view. The things in his world are happening inside him as much as outside him. He is a man caught between two different worlds — one with Isabel, and one with Emily.” (Emily is Greg’s daughter, who is searching for him in what may on the surface appear to be the “real world.”)

So far, Cahill is finding the response to Bliss’s worlds as myriad as the experiences within them. "Certain people click into it and see the whole picture, and certain people comment on the magic eye of it.” 

With Greg's unreliable point of view at the forefront, there does seem to be a magic eye element for him as well. When he is in an alternate plain with Isabel that certainly feels like a version of paradise (especially with the contrasted mutated color palette of a disintegrating Los Angeles) Isabel continuously asks him, “Don’t you remember?” Greg cannot recall a previous time here, even though the world is the same as the drawings he created and Isabel was apparently his wife on this plane. Needless to say, Greg is not unhappy he cannot remember, because he gets to experience this beautiful world anew. 

While Greg’s more grounded world, the world in which his daughter Emily dwells, feels more depressing, it’s also where perhaps the most of Greg’s pathos lies. Here Greg and Isabel live on the fringes. Isabel has a doctor friend who supplies her with crystals to help them get from one world to the other, but it’s unclear if the crystals are magical, or a drug leading to Greg’s downfall. Just as Isabel’s encampment along the L.A. river can appear equally magical as it can like a barren wasteland, or a day rollerskating that ends in arrest can also feel like Greg’s most powerful moment on earth. 

Not to give too much away, but in the end, as Cahill puts it, “There is a thrill in the fall. There is something thrilling in the ‘ugly world’ simulation.” But Wilson’s Greg never seems to let go of his newfound bliss state no matter how bad things get for him, and that is refreshing.

“I think it’s a mirror for the audience,” muses Cahill. “Your interpretations of the simulations might be more revelatory about yourself than your interpretation of the film as a whole.” When put that way, Bliss may get one thinking about much more than their own happiness, and that feels like a good thing. 

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