When I clicked on Amazon’s latest original movie, I thought I was tuning into an odd romantic comedy that also somehow involved parallel dimensions. The cast certainly looked promising, as did the titillating first trailer. This grey-toned, deadpan dystopian drama is quite the unexpected surprise. Not necessarily in quality, but in the amount of thought provoking storytelling wasted on a movie that feels like The Matrix for hopeless romantics.
Greg (Owen Wilson) is a man recently divorced and fired from his job. Aside from the gloomy skies and even gloomier day to day routine, he dreams of living in a lush coastal paradise. When he accidentally kills his coworker (you read that right), he is found by a mysterious woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek). Isabel is quite the character, coming right out of the gate telling Greg that the world he lives in and the estranged daughter he longs for a connection with are not real. Thus begins a spiritual journey through telekinetic powers, lost memories and alternate realities. This all sounds great in concept, but even a 90 minute runtime makes the story feel stretched out.
My biggest issue with the film is its opening act. Which, after the inciting incident, spends way too long on the mushy romance between Greg and Isabel. It goes from a Morpheus style recruitment to an odd homeless meet cute and superpower training montage so quickly that one would assume that Greg didn’t have a thought in his head, considering what this woman has previously told him about his life. Greg’s weakness as a character makes these early stretches taxing, which is what makes the film’s eventual turn a nice change of pace.
About halfway through, Greg is “unplugged” from the simulated reality, so to speak. That’s really where the comparisons to The Matrix end, as he wakes up in the same paradise he envisioned earlier in the film. This is where the Black Mirror influence really starts to show, as this utopia has been made by rapid advancements in technology, with simulations serving as the social experiments of this new world. I won’t get entirely into the logistics of the simulated reality or all of the reasoning behind it, but just know that this society has decided to refer to beings created specifically to reside in those realities as “Fake Generated Persons,” which might be the worst example of sci-fi jargon I’ve ever heard. A close second is the “Thought Visualizer,” another piece of tech that’s basically a telepathic Etch-a-Sketch. Not sure how that’s supposed to make the world better.
Despite some of the awkward worldbuilding, the second half of the movie can be pretty great. While Greg is reacclimating to the paradise he had left behind, the audience is left to ponder a lot of ethical quandaries about what they have already seen. Even if the life you lived is false, is it really false if you’re so attached to what you’ve been given? This is where I say that this story should have been done as an episode of a show like Black Mirror or Electric Dreams, because the film itself doesn’t really take the time to ask these questions. Instead it gets bogged down in its plot as Angela’s inventions are questioned by the public and the final act is spent properly exiting the simulation, as flashes from it begin to show up in paradise.
There’s both too much and not enough plot here, between an unbelievably egregious cameo, an extended party scene that does nothing in terms of character development, and a third act that goes completely off the rails. Where something talkier and headier could explore the ethics of a concept like this, the audience is instead asked to accept things as the way they are and move on. It doesn’t help that Greg is written so passively that he can never properly communicate his feelings and barely manages to tell Isabel that he’s seeing his estranged daughter who, in her words, isn’t real. It doesn’t add up to much by the end, even with all that potential. There are three or four really great ideas here all blended into a film that tries to pass itself off as a romance, and even fails at that. Bliss is an admirable effort, but it’s far from a good film.