Director: Charlie McDowell
Cast: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough
Watch The Discovery online in the UK: Netflix UK
Off the back of his generally well-received feature debut, 2014’s The One I Love, writer-director Charlie McDowell obtained full support from Netflix for his follow-up film. The Discovery (co-written with Justin Lader) is similarly concerned with sci-fi flirtations for a high-concept premise, although the tonal register is much less preppy than The One I Love, which was infused with a comedic streak alongside its darker explorations. The Discovery is dour for almost all of its running time, and the disappointing thing to, er, discover by its end is that it’s not really worth trudging through.
Robert Redford plays Dr. Thomas Harbor, the scientist who made the eponymous discovery, prior to where the film’s narrative begins. The discovery? An afterlife has been scientifically proven. There are little to no specifics, beyond concrete proof that human brainwaves move to a different plane of existence after we die. It doesn’t necessarily confirm any notions of what there actually is in the afterlife, like whether there’s an actual heaven or what have you, but that doesn’t stop a significant portion of the public rushing to take their own lives; unhappy people wanting to “get there”, now they know there is something beyond this mortal coil.
Six months on from his discovery’s release into the public sphere, Harbor participates in a television interview that opens the film (and features a cameo-ing Mary Steenburgen as the interviewer), which goes horribly wrong. We then cut to the two-year anniversary of the discovery, where Harbor’s son, Will (Jason Segel), is returning home to visit his brother (Jesse Plemons) and father, the latter of whom has hid from public view since the TV incident – a news report informs us that around 4 million suicides have occurred since word of the discovery spread. En route aboard a ferry, Will meets an emotionally isolated woman, Isla (Rooney Mara), and their paths cross again, when Will stops her from an attempted suicide by drowning. Will brings Isla back to his family’s new setup: a secluded mansion, staffed by survivors of suicide attempts, where Dr. Harbor is working on another big breakthrough regarding the other side. The place is part research facility, part cult, and it’s against this backdrop that Will and Isla start falling in love.
Now, upon reading that synopsis, one might think that The Discovery sounds like a film with a lot going on. And you’d be right. But the problem is that there’s a difference between a busy narrative and one where there’s actually any urgency behind it.
Partly to blame is so much time spent on the fledgling romance between Will and Isla, but Segel and Mara have so little spark between them that the characters remain indistinct; they’re too monotone and muted for anything to really click. Quite a few aspects of the film unflatteringly recall Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from the pair’s awkward meeting aboard transport to a cold, coastal setting to other twists and turns – you could even throw in the fact that Jason Segel, largely known for comedies, is trying out a straight-faced, haunted dramatic role like Jim Carrey did.
It’s a film that starts off promisingly, but gets too bogged down in a mechanical register with no real sense of increasing momentum, as well as irritating dialogue quirks – the film’s lone excursions into attempted levity are having Jesse Plemons punctuate every other line with a “that’s weird” or similarly awkward comment on an uncomfortable situation.
Even when it comes to the final act, in which new developments in Harbor’s experiment reveal more about the post-mortem plane and its true nature, the dramatic thrust still isn’t there, because backstories are still being unearthed, when we’re meant to be getting this grand revelation. As things should be culminating, the script is stuck filling in the sketches for the characters, because the prior 80-odd minutes have been so haphazard about doing so. The reveal of what the film’s afterlife actually entails, meanwhile, isn’t dynamic enough to compensate for the dreariness that’s come before; the film itself finally flatlines when it reaches the other side.
The Discovery is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.