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The Ending of ‘Bliss’ Explained

Which of the worlds in Mike Cahill’s sci-fi drama for Amazon Studios is the real one and which is the simulation? Exactly.
Owen Wilson in Bliss
Amazon Studios
By  · Published on February 6th, 2021

Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we examine the layers of reality and figure out the ending of the Amazon movie Bliss.

“You have to experience the good in order to appreciate the bad.”
“No, the other way around.”

Ignorance is not all it’s cracked up to be in Mike Cahill‘s Bliss, a sci-fi drama about the possibility that people are living in a virtual reality simulation, a la The Matrix. According to Isabel (Salma Hayek), who is either a scientist in a utopian future studying the effects of experiencing a miserable plain in order to appreciate the wonder of the perfect life or a homeless junkie needing to experience highs in order to escape the lows of the real world, we need a balance of fantasy and reality for a happier existence. Does it matter which of the two realms is the truth? What if the answer is that neither of them is?

The easy analysis of the ending of Bliss is that Greg (Owen Wilson) has lost his wife, his family, his job, and now his mind. He’s really just been living in a homeless camp and is doing a lot of drugs and hallucinating that he has magical powers and that he can travel to the perfect world he’s been dreaming about and drawing. Isabel is another homeless person with mental problems, perhaps schizophrenia, who leads him further down a dark rabbit hole of dope and delusion. If only he’d been able to refill his prescription, maybe he wouldn’t have fallen so far.

But in the end, the utopia is revealed to be a dream world, and the grimy urban place where we first meet the characters is the real world, and Greg’s daughter, Emily (Nesta Cooper), is also real and worth staying clean for. Following a spree of death and mayhem with Isabel, she goes to jail, he goes to rehab, and all is genuinely for the better again. Maybe Isabel never even existed and was just a figment of Greg’s mind, as well as another personality, a la Fight Club. That’s also very easy to claim since the only other major character — Emily — never encounters or interacts with her.

No, the other way around. Exactly. What if Emily isn’t real? Either? Perhaps, similar to Cahill’s breakout 2011 feature, Another Earth, this movie is also about two worlds and neither is necessarily the real one? In my review of A Glitch in the Matrix, Rodney Ascher’s new documentary about simulation theory(coincidentally released on the same day as Bliss), I admit that I’ve come away from such solipsistic ideas since becoming a father. How can we be living in a computer program when I’ve got these kids who are made from me and are obviously very real?

Even though I acknowledge that for men there’s less of a physical creational bond to children as evidence of their being real, there’s still a greater sense of these other souls than you have without being a parent at all. So it’s very easy for Greg to be convinced by Emily that she’s real and the memory from her childhood that she reminds him of is real and not an implant. And the relationship of father and daughter is wonderful enough, either way, that it’s worth living in a world full of poverty and pain in order to have that. And well, as Inside Out teaches us, we need sadness along with joy anyway.

However, I don’t think that the two realms seen in Bliss are equal plains, a la the parallel worlds of Another Earth. They’re not side-by-side with a gate between them, two fenced-in areas where the grass is always greener in some manner or other on the other side. I think the utopian world is a simulation within a simulation. We never see the actual “real world.” What we do see in the first of the film’s two settings, though, includes little hints that it’s a glitchy simulation. There’s the wallet on Greg’s desk when he leaves his office. And there’s the three-peated girl across the street when Isabel is telling Greg not to go to the police about his boss.

Why would Cahill show us — and only us, not the characters — hints of this first world being a simulation if it wasn’t one? At the same time, he never keeps narrative focalization limited to Greg, so we know we’re not only seeing what he’s experiencing or what’s only in his head. There are scenes in which Isabel is doing her own thing separate from what Greg’s doing, so there’s no reason to accept that she’s either not real within the story or real within the simulation. The same goes for Emily. We can recognize that the two women are as genuine as Greg is in that first simulation.

Whether the second simulation level is merely an effect of hallucinatory drugs doesn’t matter. It’s still a different reality, albeit one that Isabel and Greg are able to share through a mutual experience and constant conversation about what they’re seeing and doing. And it’s a reality that overlaps and sometimes blends with the first one. A mix of virtual and augmented reality. Unfortunately for Isabel and Greg, the blending of worlds can get them into trouble in either, especially the first world, where to everyone else, Greg looked like he was directly knocking an old lady down at a roller rink.

Of course, Bliss is a movie, and we can always just explain that first “reality” as being a simulation in so far as it’s a fiction on screen, created and cast by Cahill and his collaborative gods. Every movie story is a simulated reality (sure, even documentaries to an extent). Cinema is a mirror, but it’s also escapism. Do we want to escape to a world that’s too much like our own, with all of its miseries but also with its more relatable characters and relationships or do we want to go to that more-perfect world of robots and asteroid mining? Can’t we have both? Exactly.

Bliss is now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.