Mike Cahill’s Bliss opens with a man, Greg (Owen Wilson), at the end of his rope. He’s in the middle of a divorce and has just been fired from his job when he meets a mysterious woman at a bar. Such a woman is Isabel (Salma Hayek), who, with a wave of her wrist, shows Greg that she has some telekinetic ability to manipulate reality; promising a confused Greg that the world he believes to be real is actually a simulation and that they are the only real people among many, many fakes.
Bliss plays such a proclamation straight, never trying to poke holes in Isabel’s claims, showing how her powers have many material effects. From there Greg and Isabel gallivant around a dingy Los Angeles and entertain dreams of the better, realer world that lies outside the simulations. But, as Cahill flounders his many big ideas, he also dampens the visual potential of what the true home might look like; rendering it into a horridly shot blandness. There may be a way to justify the shoddiness of the movie’s images with a high-concept explanation — maybe it’s intentional that no matter what reality Greg and Isabel occupy, it looks grubby, flimsy and commercially artificial. But Bliss continually fails to engage those senses. As things come to a close, Cahill attempts to tie it all into a tidy and fantastically unearned bow, using more material that feels shoved in at the last possible moment, unsubstantial in its attempts. Even the worst simulation would have more clarity than this. Life might be messy and weird, but it possesses more honesty than this. Clogged up in listless exposition, Bliss gets tangled up in its jeopardy-free and intrigue-free attempts at world-building.
Bliss is available to stream on Prime Video
The Wanting Mare
It’s hard to find a word that best describes the genre-bending The Wanting Mare — maybe “impressive” works best. Not outright sci-fi, this arthouse post-apocalyptic mood piece is mostly a triumph of DIY persistence for writer-director Nicholas Ashe Bateman, who reportedly spent around five years working on the visual effects to make his sparse set look like an entire ruined world. It’s one that he only hints at where and when we are. In the opening title cards, we’re told that we’re in the land of Anmaere, in the hot, crime-ridden city called Whithren, where once a year an enormous cargo ship sends some of the local wild horses across the water to a much colder and apparently less dangerous continent. And it’s also much of the residents that would like to join them.
One of the people longing to get out is Moira (Jordan Monaghan), whose mother died in childbirth after gifting her — or perhaps cursing her — with a recurring dream of how their society fell. Just when Moira is at the peak of her despair, she meets a shady character named Lawrence (Josh Clark), who tries to figure out how to get her a ticket on the big boat. The Wanting Mare sets itself across multiple decades, with multiple actors playing those lead roles, but its notably a movie with such muted performances and slight plotting that it feels like it can almost drift away. But it’s impressive how Bateman fleshes out the world around it, especially given that much of the movie was shot in an empty storage facility. There’s something haunting about the simplicity of it all, about a story about how people find reasons to persevere once they find a companion. It guess it might be true that misery does in fact love company. Appreciably hushed and uncontained sci-fi, The Wanting Mare finds plenty of soft and silent seduction in its detrimentally sparse fable.
The Wanting Mare is available on VOD