‘The Discovery’ Hides Purgatory Behind a Promising Premise
Why prove there’s an afterlife if you don’t engage with it?
Sometimes you hear a premise that’s worth seeing through even if you know the film can’t possibly live up to it. Netflix’s The Discovery, the second film by writer/director Charlie McDowell, is one of those. Science has proven, beyond doubt, that we exist beyond life. Brainwaves have been measured and in some peer-reviewed sense, the afterlife exists. The only problem is – if it’s even a problem at all – the suicide rate has skyrocketed. People have some certainty so they’re getting out while the getting’s good. What’s on the other side, what they’re escaping the pain and suffering of this mortal coil into, well, that’s something the scientists haven’t quite gotten to yet.
McDowell’s debut film The One I Love has a similarly tantalizing premise that works on a much more facile level of science-fiction shock than something this heady. The weirdness of that film acts as a parachute to the film’s drag car plotting, saving it from going dangerously fast and careening out of control. On the other side of the speedometer, The Discovery never quite mounts enough velocity to warrant the deployment of a chute. It’s less a drag racer and more a puttering sedan with some well-meaning bumper stickers.
The writing hamstrings the film’s fantastic cast, leaving the likes of Rooney Mara, Jason Segel, Robert Redford and Jesse Plemons sounding like over-rehearsed college debaters. Redford is Dr. Thomas Harber, the man whose research cost more lives than any since the Manhattan Project. His shameful retreat from the public eye is interrupted by the homecoming of his eldest son, Will (Segel). Will meets Isla (Mara) on the ferry over and the pair join Will’s shaggy brother Toby (Plemons) at Dr. Harber’s new research facility. There, removed from the rest of the world like they’re on a different plane of existence themselves, they begin to broach the subject that could possibly styme the hangings, pills, and self-inflicted gunshots: what’s next?
Shot in frigid blue-greys, the film’s crisp visual monotony is a purgatory unto itself, especially when the organic intoxication of the ocean cinematography bleeds into the technosphere. Wires and nodes lead to staticky screens and some striking imagery, especially when the radiantly warm Redford or Segel involve themselves among the clinical paraphernalia. Both actors are sturdy and contemplative while Plemons and Mara run through jabbering, too-quirky, too-introspective dialogue that never quite dulls their charms. Everyone is game for this big idea, but the idea never seems totally ready to be tackled.
This is where The Discovery falters. It’s wrangling of its central theme, death and its relationship with life, is lackluster and overly-simplistic. It sidesteps religion, moral philosophy, and neuropsychology for its facile twists. One or two lines are thrown at each, but the film relies on a central mystery around the promising test results from a freshly dead man while still acting – especially in the burgeoning relationship between Will and Isla – like it’s a mumbly philoso-romance. The pace is set by a mystery the film itself doesn’t seem fully invested in.
Twists, especially when dealing with concepts as large as life and death (or in the case of the earlier The One I Love, identity and relationships), don’t necessarily have to be reverse-engineerable to reinterpret the entire film before it. Unless of course, the film employs this technique. Then the floodgates are open for every plot hole detective to swoop in and declare your film incompetent because of an “overlooked” detail. The Discovery isn’t a failure. It’s a small, often sweet movie whose characters sometimes talk like they’re in a much sharper, funnier, happier film and whose actors yearn to apply their personal readings of the script into their underwritten characters. There’s just not much to it after you get past the initial “woah” factor of its opening (delivered via TV news because even interesting directors cannot always escape cliches).
In an industry whose overt struggles with faith are polarized into the obscenely commercialized Christploitation films of Heaven is for Real and the underseen harrowing deliberation of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, The Discovery smooths over its loaded question with an unsatisfying route to an under-explored conclusion. It’s not quite a thriller nor a mystery nor a romance; it feels like a lesser episode of a science-fiction anthology like Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone, getting by on a good plot blurb in the TV Guide description. It’s a movie you will only remember after the fact because you bring up its premise (or, if you watch it all, its ending) at a party or on a date, leading to discussion and relationships far deeper than the film that inspired them.