Producer: James D. Stern   Director: Mike Cahill   Screenplay: Mike Cahill   Cast: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Josh Leonard, Madeline Zima and Bill Nye   Distributor: Amazon Prime

Grade: C-

Writer-director Mike Cahill has specialized in twisty little sci-fi parables—“Another Earth (2011), “I Origins (2014)—with an emphasis on doubles that practically beg to be called smart but in the end come across as merely pretentious.  He follows the pattern with “Bliss,” which, though more elaborate than those earlier efforts from a production perspective, represents a decline rather than an advance.

The film opens in a dreary office in Los Angeles, where Greg Wittle (Owen Wilson) is a manager in a Kafkaesque office of phone operators responding to an endless series of calls about “technical difficulties.”  Greg, a divorced guy whose daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) is trying to get him to come to her graduation, seems to be doing as little work as possible, putting off a directive to see his boss in order to order a prescription refill.  No wonder what when he finally gets around to visiting Bjorn (Steve Zissis), he gets fired.

Hearing the news he jumps up and accidentally pushes Bjorn, who falls against his desk and dies.  Hiding the corpse behind some drapes, Greg runs across the street to a bar, where he’s accosted by Isabel (Salma Hayek), a strange woman who points out that he’s “real” and gives him a demonstration of her telekinetic powers, telling him that they’re related to some crystals she persuades him to filch from her unconscious boyfriend—along with his wallet.

After helping him escape an accusation of murder, she convinces him to accompany her, introducing him to his own powers.  They get kicks out of causing accidents to befall other people—a long scene at a roller-skating rink is the apex—before she takes him to her outdoor crash pad and decides to return them both to where they actually live.

Some different crystals transport them to a paradisiacal alternate world where everybody (some of them holograms, for some reason) enjoys a life of riches and pleasure.  She’s actually a scientist whose experiment involves creating simulated realities like the one they’ve just left, in which she places volunteers who interact with the pretend folk that inhabit them.  Greg, her husband, was one of the volunteers, but became too addicted to the simulation, and now that he’s back he suffers from amnesia about the reality to which they’ve returned and has to recover his actual life. 

It seems he’s a scientist too, having invented a popular device called a thought visualize.  And he must learn about the paradise they inhabit, which he’s told was reformed from a state even worse than the simulation they’ve just left through methods like asteroid mining.  But guess what?  Before long he comes to have second thoughts about his “perfect” world and experience regrets about leaving the old imperfect simulation, particularly Emily and her brother Arthur (Jorge Lanesberg, Jr.).

In visual terms “Bliss” is an improvement on Cahill’s earlier threadbare pictures: Kasra Farahani’s production design is excellent, especially in the “paradise” sequences, and so is the cinematography by Markus Forderer.  But Troy Takaki’s editing is tired, and Will Bates’s score bland.

In narrative terms, moreover, the film is just a sluggish, unexciting and ultimately rather dumb take on the “Matrix” premise.  Consider, for instance, the rationale behind Isabel’s experiment: the idea seems to be that one cannot appreciate, or even feel, bliss without an experience of its opposite, misery.  Of course, one could argue the same point about anything–life and death, joy and sorrow, friendship and loneliness, and so on.  It’s banality treated as profundity.

The acting doesn’t provide much compensation.  Wilson just does his doofus routine, which makes it hard to believe that he’s a scientist, and while Hayek seems to enjoy the split between frantic homeless person and smooth scientist, she offers little variety in either.  In the supporting cast Cooper has a few affecting moments, but everyone else is little more than functional; some may get a chuckle seeing Bill Nye as one of Isabel’s co-scientists.

It may be a pretty hackneyed observation, but you’re unlikely to finish watching “Bliss” feeling very happy.