Does Mike Cahill feel seen? The 41-year-old writer-director of science fiction has now made three films, each higher-profile than the last, about ways of seeing. This is literalized most literally in the second of these efforts, I Origins, which is also, not unrelatedly, the worst titled. Released in 2014, it’s about vision scientists searching for the origin of the human eye—look, a pun—which, if you didn’t know, is “the window,” as one character literally says, “to the soul.” They find it in the genes of a sightless worm, but not before Karen, played by Brit Marling, warns her lab partner that she, at least, has no interest in getting famous, in being seen: “Recognition makes me nauseous,” she says.
Recognition, for Cahill, has meant two things: more money and less Marling. She both starred in and cowrote Cahill’s first sci-fi, Another Earth, which came out in 2011 and was reportedly made for a scant 100 thou. I Origins cost 10 times as much, and Marling only acted in it. In Cahill’s latest film, Bliss, budget unknown but starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek and out now on Amazon Prime, she’s nowhere to be found. (In more recent years, you may have seen Marling in the Netflix show The OA, her baby.) Not saying she’s his inspiration, but the money/Marling tradeoff seems to have muddied Cahill’s cinematic vision.
Another Earth was the best kind of sci-fi-on-a-shoestring, conceptual but contained. Of the Cahill trilogy, it’s also, not unrelatedly, the best titled. All sci-fi is the metaphorical made literal, but so much of the time, it’s blown out of proportion. (Or it just blows up, in space, in the last act.) Here, the scale is human. One night, Marling’s character, Rhonda, gets drunk at a college party and decides to drive home. On the way, something appears, out of the blue, in the sky. It’s a planet, seemingly identical to our own. As she looks up at it, she slams into another car, extinguishing two lives in an instant. Thus the question raised by the title: Is there another world in which that didn’t happen? One in which Rhonda didn’t just ruin her life? The film hints at an answer but doesn’t commit, going out instead on a startling gasp of possibility.
This was to become Cahill’s signature—ambiguity as the answer to his oversized ambitions. He’s hopelessly committed, like all creators of science fiction, to investigating the wonders and woes of existence, the whos and huhs and whys. For this, he can’t be faulted. Most mainstream cinema doesn’t ask questions half as challenging. But Another Earth worked because the ambiguity wasn’t absolute. The viewer detects, thanks to Cahill and Marling’s gentle guiding hands, a way to see a possible solution. Even I Origins, despite its visual literalities and condescendingly slo-mo, burst-of-sunlight ending, manages to enrich and complicate the old seeing-is-believing cliché. Then Cahill made Bliss, which no amount of seeing will make you believe.
Wilson plays Greg, a nobody with a nothing office job who spends his days dreaming about other earths, other lives. Then a witch lady named Isabel (Hayek, unrestrained) shows up, claiming to have powers over reality. Which isn’t actually reality, she tells him, but a computer simulation, and Greg can see that for himself, if he just takes these sparkly crystal pills. In other words—you’ve been here before. You Greg, but also you the viewer, who remembers this from The Matrix. Look, the Wachowskis don’t have a monopoly on simulation theory. Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, the new documentary A Glitch in the Matrix—there’s a lot of room in the virtual sandbox. But in a red pill/blue pill world, Cahill’s pharmaceutically mediated reality reads as, well, a second-rate simulation of the real thing.