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Mike Cahill reveals why he left the ending of Bliss so ambiguous

Also: what he wants people to get out of the film, and why the end of Inception is a question, not an answer

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Amazon Studios’ new movie Bliss seems like a story designed to start arguments. Coincidentally released the same weekend as Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch In the Matrix, a documentary about people who authentically believe the world is some form of artificial simulation, Bliss explores the fictional side of that same idea. It opens with an ordinary businessman, Greg Wittle (played by Owen Wilson) struggling at his job, because he has visions of a much more beautiful and compelling one. Shortly after a severe problem at work, he meets a woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek) who tells him he’s one of the few real people in a largely illusory world. She introduces him to the power he has over the world around him, and draws him into a more chaotic and carefree life.

[Ed. note: significant spoilers ahead for Bliss, in the rest of this introduction, and to some degree in the interview ahead.]

But as the movie unfolds, writer-director Mike Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins) introduces some significant ambiguities. Greg is a recovering addict, and may be mentally ill. There are discrepancies in Isabel’s story that feel confusing and jarring, especially when reality splinters. She takes him to the utopian “real” world, telling Greg that our world is just a simulation created by a “brain box” as a harsh vacation zone for the people living in paradise, who can only appreciate their lives when they see how much worse off they could be. When the “real” world starts coming apart, though, it raises a question the movie deliberately doesn’t answer: Is this all just happening in Greg’s mind? Polygon recently sat down to talk to Mike Cahill about what he intended in the movie, how ambiguous he wanted to make it, and whether the ending of Inception is up for debate.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

This movie draws significantly on the idea from The Matrix that people would be fundamentally incapable of accepting a perfect world, that they’d be uncomfortable in it, and would demand imperfection. Is that something you personally believe?

I don’t know if that’s true, necessarily. But I don’t know if that’s exactly what I was chasing with Bliss. I do like the story of a person chasing paradise, or chasing numbness, maybe? You know, ignorance is bliss, but ignorance is just sort of not-knowing, while numbness is intentional unawareness, and closing out the noise. What is this paradise? What is this idea of peace? We tell a story where someone is chasing that, and through the arc, through the drama, through his love for Isabel, really, learns to love the chaos and tension of our world, the noise, all of it. There’s something exhilarating in the climax when she says, “This is horrible, this is a nightmare.” And Owen’s character looks at her, and it dawns on him, it’s through her that he loves his chaotic world. He says, “You know, there’s something kind of beautiful about this.” She looks incredulous, like “No!” but there is. The noise, the cops… “It’s fucked up, but I’m staying.”

I love that idea. Because it’s counterintuitive, right? It’s authentic. Take it back many, many millennia as a metaphor, to the apple and the fall from grace. You know, the Milton version of the fall from Paradise. It’s not a tragedy that you get to relish in the flesh and the excitement. The parts that are fun. You get that through Salma’s character, Isabel — you feel like she’d almost get bored of the paradise life. There’s some exhilaration in chaos, and the cyclical struggle, that’s kind of wonderful. So I don’t think we reject paradise, but I think we need to balance it out.

But you think of the future world as chasing numbness? You associate it with him disassociating himself from what’s valuable in life?

In some ways. Yeah, numbness or solipsism, or closing off the world. Isabel [points at the world and] says, “See these people? They’re not real. None of them are real.” And it’s like, how wide is that view? Do you narrow your view of what’s real until you’re closed off behind your headphones and you don’t see the world? It’s meant to serve as a metaphor. Really, the film is supposed to be a framework for you as the audience to project your life upon it. So in the broadest strokes, the idea behind the movie — I wanted to tell a story about the fragility of the human mind.

And not just even fragility, but the way — you may have loved ones, family members, people you really really care about, who see the world way different than you. Vastly different. Their version of reality is so foreign to you that there’s very little overlap. Their version of reality is so infused with their emotional interior that the landscape of their reality takes on the sentiments they have inside. I feel like our world is has been bifurcated in that way. We’re very divided. I wanted to tell a story where — Emily, Greg’s daughter, doesn’t stop trying to reach across the divide of another worldview. She doesn’t stop trying to reach him, despite the hardship and the futility. And that can’t be taken for granted, because she has a brother who doesn’t make those same efforts.

So it’s this beautiful idea for me, that persistence, to reach across to someone who sees the world differently, whether it be through politics, or mental health issues, addiction, Alzheimer’s, any sort of degradation of the mind, or just different colored glasses in front of your eyes. Whatever it is that makes disparate worlds, and a bridge between them, almost impossible, someone who does try to connect to me feels very profound.

The love story between Greg and Isabel is between two people who see the world the same way. That union of vision feels like love, and everything else disappears. If I can create a science fiction framework where I turn the idea of different worldviews into actual different worlds, and use it to look at the emotion behind reaching across those worlds, that’s something really cool. You could strip away the science fiction, and you’d just have an indie drama about connecting with someone who sees things differently.

Speaking of mental health divides, at the point where you talk about embracing chaos as good, and rejecting order as numbness, some people might interpret this movie as being against medication. You specifically have someone living in a chaotic world, until he ingests magic crystals and goes to a place of peace and simplicity. But you’re presenting that as rejecting the real world?

Oh no! No, that’s not the idea! I mean, I wouldn’t think of it as — no, no, no, no, no! You’re applying a judgment where there is no judgment. We don’t say one world is the real world or the other one is. That’s a statement you’re making. I don’t think the movie is saying that to quiet the noise, to seek numbness, is necessarily bad. It’s just relatable. We can understand that, everyone can understand that. Negotiating our relationship to — since the dawn of the constant news cycle, since the internet, since we got access to tragedies the world over, in faraway countries, you can be inundated in so much of the hardship that life is. How do you negotiate your relationship to that? How wide of a window do you want to have to the plight of someone 6,000 miles away? This isn’t a judgment, it’s a reality. Whatever people choose there, I can feel those choices with empathy.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

People will argue about what’s real in the movie, and what the ending means. Did you write or direct it with the idea of there being one specific truth? Did the idea of keeping the reality of it ambiguous stretch through the entire process?

I very purposely set out to create a movie with what’s called a bi-stability of interpretations. This is incredibly explicitly activated through the different departments, so it’s in the script — when you get to the end of the film, we’re not going to say, “Oh, the harsh world is the real world,” or “The bliss world is the real world.” We’re going to put all our efforts into giving them each their own level of plausibility. We’re going to make the brain box reasonably designed, so it’s a neuron-based computers. We’re going to give the bliss world a backstory. Obviously we start with a bias toward the world we begin in, because that’s human nature. But those ideas compete along the way.

There’s a subtle thing we do, maybe you pick up on it or maybe you don’t, but there are repeating compositional elements in the production design. So the harsh-world tarp homes and tents are completely repeated by the bliss-world tents of the farmers’ market. The statues in the university mirror the mannequins. We do this many times throughout the film, threading this idea as a subliminal thing — it’s a way to say, maybe there’s something more in common with these worlds, and it’s just a way of looking at them that is bifurcating or separating them. So there is no truth that this or that is better. It’s just, what you have control over? It’s where you choose to put your focus. What do you choose? Greg says, “Sorry I’m late.” His daughter says, “You’re not late, you’re here.” He’s here. That’s it, you’re here. And that’s a choice, to be here, in the overlapping part of our world. And regarding people fighting about it, [groans] I don’t want anyone to fight. Don’t fight.

Not in a bad way! People enjoy figuring out how to interpret movies. I’m thinking of how people argued over the ending of Inception

The ending of Inception is not ambiguous! Anyone who says it’s ambiguous is wrong. And I’m going to join into this argument, because why not? [Laughs] The ending of Inception, every single person watching that movie has the same thought in their head. Every single person. It’s not like people are thinking 10 different things. The thing that challenges everyone is not an answer, it’s the same question: Is this a dream? Everybody has that thought! “Is the top going to fall over? Is this real?” And it cuts out. One hundred percent of the audience has the same exact thought in their head at the end of that movie! That’s not ambiguity! That’s ending on a question, as opposed to an answer, which is more true to life than anything!

But it’s human nature to want an answer. What do you want people to come away from Bliss with, if you don’t want them arguing “Is this real? Is this not real?” What’s the ideal idea that they come away with?

That it’s understandable to fall in love and have the whole world disappear. We can relate to that. And that it’s noble and beautiful, when someone can find you in your other world, and love you, and want you to spend time with them in their world. That’s beautiful. I get the shudders. It shakes my soul, that ability of somebody to reach and connect with someone in a different universe. Science fiction allows that, and we can make it all kinda cool and lean into simulation theory. But it’s really just about the human part. Human connection. I think that humans are capable of that is really noble and beautiful.

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