does mike cahill feel seen? the 41-year-old sci-fi writer and director has already made three films, each one higher profile than the last, about ways of seeing. this is more literally literalized in the second of these efforts, i origins, which is also, not unrelated, the worst titled. Released in 2014, it’s about vision scientists searching for the origin of the human eye (look, pun intended) which, if you didn’t know, is “the window,” as one character literally puts it, “to the soul.” They find it in the genes of a blind worm, but not before Karen, played by Brit Marling, warns her lab partner that she, at least, has no interest in becoming famous, in being seen: it makes you nauseous,” she says.
recognition, for cahill, has meant two things: more money and less marling. She starred in and co-wrote Cahill’s first sci-fi, Another Earth, which was released in 2011 and was reportedly made for a mere $100k. i origins cost 10 times as much, and marling only acted in it. In the latest film from Cahill, Bliss, budget unknown but starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek and now available on Amazon Prime, she is nowhere to be found. (In more recent years, you may have seen Marling on the Netflix show The Oa, Her Baby.) I’m not saying she’s her inspiration, but the tradeoff between money and marling seems to have clouded Cahill’s cinematic vision.
another earth was the best kind of low-budget, conceptual but contained sci-fi. of the cahill trilogy, it is also, not unrelated, the best title. all science fiction is the metaphorical made literal, but most of the time, it’s blown out of proportion. (or it just explodes, 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 to her house. Along the way, something appears, out of nowhere, in the sky. it is a planet, apparently identical to ours. when she looks at him, she crashes into another car, extinguishing two lives in an instant. hence the question posed by the title: is there another world where that doesn’t happen? One where rhonda didn’t just ruin her life? the film hints at an answer but doesn’t commit, instead coming out with a startling sigh of possibility.
this would become cahill’s signature: ambiguity as a response to his outsized ambitions. he is hopelessly committed, like all sci-fi creators, to investigating the wonders and evils of existence, the whos, the huhs, and the whys. for this, he cannot be blamed. most mainstream cinema doesn’t ask questions half as challenging. but another land worked because the ambiguity was not absolute. The viewer detects, thanks to Cahill and Marling’s gentle guiding hands, a way of seeing a possible solution. Even i Origins, for all its visual literalities and condescending slow-motion, sunlight burst ending, manages to enrich and complicate the old cliché of seeing is believing. then cahill made happiness, which no amount of views will make you believe.
Wilson plays Greg, a nobody with a desk job who spends his days dreaming of other lands, other lives. Then a witch named Isabel (Hayek, No Restrictions) appears who claims to have powers over reality. Which isn’t really reality, she tells him, but a computer simulation, and Greg can see for himself, if he just takes these glowing crystal pills. in other words, you’ve been here before. you, greg, but also you, the viewer, who remember this from the matrix. Look, the Wachowskis don’t have a monopoly on simulation theory. thirteenth floor, existz, the new documentary a flaw in the matrix: there is too much space in the virtual sandbox. But in a red pill/blue pill world, Cahill’s pharmaceutically mediated reality reads like a second-rate simulation of reality.
That’s the problem with happiness, because it pools like warm water around a clogged drain: it doesn’t go anywhere new. He also doesn’t have much to say about the matrix, about simulation theory, about anything. The main question of the film is whether Isabel is a homeless drug addict or a liberated truth teller. “They’re not real,” she yells at Greg, pointing wildly at strangers on the street. she hesitates, accepts, rejects. he is us, we are never sure what to believe, a confusion made less effective by cahill’s camera and persisting in literal signs and symbols. a billboard the name of a bar. another poster. yes, those things are easy to see. but the point of this movie is not.