What happens in a world where proof of an afterlife is definitive? Thus is the ethical dilemma of The Discovery, the new film from Charlie McDowell (The One I Love) and distributed via Netflix.
Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), the man credited for what is dubbed “the discovery” grants unprecedented access with an interview; an interview that ends in a crew member’s on-air suicide.
Elsewhere, Will (Jason Segel) and Isla (Rooney Mara) meet on an otherwise empty ferry. They naval-gaze for a time, discussing how people “grow into their names” or not, how suicide groups in the face of the discovery are disingenuous, and then finally the truth of the discovery itself. Will, a neurologist, doesn’t believe that it is a guarantor of eternal life.
Will is Thomas’ son, and Will is back home to see what Thomas’ next big project is. In a large mansion, off the grid, with a staff of people who attempted suicide after the discovery was revealed, Thomas is edging himself to death and being shocked back to life Flatliners-style.
There is a drabness to the aesthetic of The Discovery. A mansion with an inadequate amount of light fixtures. Consistently overcast weather. Muted tones of blue and gray dominate the film, making dreary the mood of the already dreary premise.
Given this premise, one expects a psychological dilemma, something that probes at larger questions with uncertain answers. The film wants to put forth these questions through the prevalence of suicide, to the extent where scoreboard-like counters are comically strewn about the storyworld.
Camus said that the only philosophical question is suicide. This film makes that claim, but with far less compelling language. The existential meditation the film makes wades on the surface without diving for any pearls. It is too caught up in the sad romantic B-plot and cadaver hunting to get into the minutiae of a universe in which suicide has a new form of ethical currency.
The proof of an afterlife is merely a macguffin for a plot about an isolated cult community, itself never fully developed, and a souped up science experiment.
The divide between premise and plot is stark. One provides the hook, the other provides the experience. In the case of The Discovery, we only get the former. The plot meanders around the issue, not knowing exactly how to come face to face with the intriguing concept it presents.
The wallowing acting performances don’t help any. Segel and Mara mumble their way through scenes, circling around anecdotes about dead people they know and sadly falling in love with each other. Robert Redford is cornered into an empty character with no discernible humanity or depth, his talent squandered.
Tragically, The Discovery brings a (mostly) original concept to the table. It wants to make you think. It tries to be something more than itself. It has ambition. But this ambition is wasted on a final product that doesn’t allow its thought-provoking questions to spell out a similarly fascinating story.
The Discovery: C-
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews.
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)