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Bliss

Year: 2021
Studio: Amazon Studios
Director: Mike Cahill
Writer: Mike Cahill
Cast: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Josh Leonard, Bill Nye

Jokingly, you could call it the one where he might actually decide to take the blue pill. I don't think that's a spoiler – if it's not obvious the movie's about a futuristic computer simulation even from the trailer you're not concentrating hard enough.

But we meet working stiff Greg (Owen Wilson, restraining the high pitched voice and aw-shucks shtick) sitting at his desk daydreaming and drawing pictures of an idyllic landscape he doesn't know but can't stop thinking about. If you don't already have any idea of the secret behind Greg's world, a shot of his wallet on the desk shows it shimmering and breaking up like it's a bad video projection.

His boss is calling for him, the secretary getting more irate the longer he obfuscates, and when he finally goes to his boss' office he's told he's being fired because of his unfocused job performance. It immediately turns darkly slapstick when Greg suddenly leaps to his feet, frightening the smaller man who falls backwards, clips the top of his head on the edge of his heavy desk and is killed instantly.

Greg ties him up to the widow blinds behind the curtain and beats a hasty retreat to a bar across the street where an apparently homeless woman, Isabel (Salma Hayek) tells him from across the room she knows what he's done. When his boss' corpse untangles from the blinds and falls out the window to the footpath below in full view, everybody assuming he's killed himself, Isabel takes Greg to her homeless camp under a freeway bridge, tells him the world he thinks he's loving in doesn't exist and teaches him how to manipulate the world around him telepathically like she can, promising him that nothing he does to anybody in this world matters.

Amazed at his newfound ability, Greg accompanies Isabel to a roller skating rink where they have a blast tripping people over and causing havoc, but in one of the weird turns in the script by director Mike Cahill, after Greg watches a guy involved in the roller skating incident being driven away by the cops, he suddenly discovers it's himself sitting in the back of the cop car being taken away.

After being released he (just happens to) meet his daughter Emily in a dark alley near where Isabel is apparently doing a major drug deal in a dingy apartment. Emily tries to convince Greg – who by this time seems homeless himself owing to his ratty clothes and days without showering – to come home, but Isabel again insists none of it is real and tells Greg she intends to prove it to him.

She has him snort some of the stuff she's been buying from the dealer inside, a handful of blue crystals, and they both wake up in an opulent European seaside resort town, connected along with several others by wires to a huge water tank with brains floating in it.

Isabel, it turns out, is a brilliant neuroscientist who's created a device for jacking into people's brains and having them live in fine-tuned simulations while they're asleep. One of them was the world Greg was living in, and the pictures he found himself drawing were of his sun kissed home and beautiful, successful wife.

And from that interesting set-up, it all just goes a bit pear shaped. Having proof that his beloved daughter and son and everything in the world he's always known are all fake, Greg can't let go even though the real world is now perfect, technology having freed the globe from war and poverty.

But then, at a gala event feting Isabel and her work, scenes and shadows from the simulated world start appearing to Greg, further convincing him that maybe this world is the dream and Emily is real after all.

Isabel tells him it's because they didn't have quite enough of the blue crystals to exit the simulation completely, that fragments of it in their brains are still manifesting as visions in this world, and that they have to go back in and get enough to leave the simulation completely. Once there, Isabel ends up committing a murder to get hold of the brain agent, and with the cops closing in on them, Greg makes a fateful decision.

Parallels to The Matrix are obvious, and in more than just the core idea. Just like Neo and his cohorts talking in riddles got a little bit tiresome after awhile (an element which badly hobbled the second season of TV's Westworld as well), half an hour could have been shaved off if Isabel had just walked up to Greg and said 'You're in a simulated, computer generated world, you actually live in the future in Croatia where you're hooked up to a giant brain machine right now, dreaming all this'.

The other problem is that there's just nothing very exciting or original on show in the plot, and it kind of runs out of steam. Cahill is a good visual filmmaker and has a strong grip on angles, blocking and colours – it's the story that's lacking.

And the casting is just awful. Wilson does okay enough as the mild mannered hero but it wastes all the distinctive characteristics he usually brings to a role with his singular face and voice. And with Hayek, as Latina firecracker Isabel, the movie seems to be saying something about LA's homeless Latino population that it's apparently not.

In fact there seems to be countless themes and ideas in it, from the transporting effects of drugs to the weird feeling when you wake from a dream that seemed so real, but none of them really connect organically to the plot and the whole thing is a it of a damp squib. Maybe Cahill does better with something much smaller and grittier like Another Earth or I, Origins and when they give him a bigger, streaming-company budget for something like this he just flounders.

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