Movie Review: ‘The Discovery’ (Second Opinion)
Plot: When scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) definitively proves the existence of an afterlife, it sets off a pandemic of suicides so people can “get there.” In response, Harbor secludes himself in a compound with several followers and endeavors to discover what afterlife humans go to once they die. Meanwhile, Thomas’ son Will, a neurologist who helped his father prove the existence of an afterlife, reluctantly returns home at his brother Toby’s (Jesse Plemons) insistence. Racked by guilt for being complicit in the suicides of millions, including his own mother, Will hopes to stop Thomas’ experiments. Will’s plans however, are upended when he saves a suicidal woman named Isla (Rooney Mara) who he soon develops feelings for.
Review: After thousands of years, the topic of the afterlife continues to fascinate humankind. Death is the ultimate final destination, one we must all arrive at someday. Some believe there is simply nothing beyond this reality, others believe in reincarnation, still others believe in Heaven and Hell. Whether you’re an atheist, a Catholic, or a Muslim, the topic of the afterlife is one still discussed ad nauseam. And of course there’s been plenty of films made about the afterlife, from the humorous (Defending Your Life, Beetlejuice), to the romantic (What Dreams May Come, City of Angels), the horrific (Flatliners, Spawn), and the hopeful (Heaven Is For Real, Ghost).
With director Charlie McDowell’s (The One I Love) latest afterlife film, we may need to add a new category: grimmest.
Stark and depressing, The Discovery nevertheless mostly succeeds because of its unique take on the afterlife. As macabre as it sounds, millions committing suicide after definitive proof of an afterlife makes a kind of twisted sense. Yet the movie rather than take a global view of the issue, McDowell chooses (correctly I believe) to make this a much more personal story about the aftermath of the discovery. And it doesn’t get more personal than dealing with the people who made the discovery.
McDowell (son of actor Malcolm McDowell and actress Mary Steenburgen) creates a bleak tapestry that embodies the mood of main character Will. Filmed in Rhode Island, the atmosphere is reminiscent of the recent movie Manchester by the Sea. Sterling Brandth Grovlen’s cinematography however pales in comparison to Manchester, a much better film about dealing with loss.
Justin Lader and Charlie McDowell’s script comes off uneven with occasional moments of brilliance. Some of the best parts of the film involve the relationship between Will and Isla. Whether they are talking about their own personal losses (Isla’s son and Will’s mother) or trying to discover, by their own methods, what the afterlife is by tracking down the past of a recently departed local man. It’s when the shift focuses to the relationship with Will’s father and brother that things become much less interesting. Redford and Segel’s interactions often lack authenticity. Especially when many of their scenes amount to Will saying, “Stop this Dad,” and Thomas saying, “No.” Not super compelling.
The Discovery lacks somewhat of an identity as well. At one moment it’s a science fiction film, the next it’s a discussion about dealing with grief, next it’s a semi-detective story-the film is all over the place. To put it simply, The Discovery doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. Furthermore, there are almost no moments of levity aside from Mara’s occasional gallows humor. For example, at one point compound member Lacey (Riley Keough) reveals to Isla that her family all killed themselves to “get there” without bothering to tell her. They didn’t care about Lacey enough to include her. Even Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is like, “Yeesh that’s dark.”
I will say this though. McDowell and Lader do a fantastic job of addressing the question of culpability. Are Thomas and Will complicit in the suicides of millions because of their discovery, or are those people responsible for their own lives? Thomas seems not to think so, yet he’s driven to find out what lies beyond this reality. This seems to indicate that at least subconsciously he feels so. Will on the other hand overtly feels he’s responsible, particularly for his Mom’s death. Yet he also bares an animosity towards his father for a reason I will not reveal. Also I won’t spoil what the truth of what the afterlife actually is. Suffice it to say though that it’s unexpected and maybe one of the few hopeful aspects of the film. Although it by no means erases the dreariness that comes before.
On the acting front Segel shines as the guilt-ridden Will and his chemistry with Mara is phenomenal. If you only know him from How I Met Your Mother and think he’s only a comedic actor like I did, think again. His performance will pleasantly surprise despite his character sometimes being a little too one note. Mara meanwhile continues her streak of strong performances, bringing a depth and nuance to the standard grieving mother character. Yes she’s suicidal but overtime Isla begins to develop a sense of purpose. There’s an evolution to the character and she’s maybe the most well-developed of all of them. The only thing I found distracting was the naturally brunette’s, blond hair. But that’s really just nitpicking. The most disappointing however was Robert Redford. At this point in his career he seems to be playing…well…Robert Redford in every movie. With the exception of Captain America: The Winter Solider, I honestly can’t think of a role I’ve liked him in since Sneakers. Maybe it’s a good thing he’s retiring.
While there’s far better films about the afterlife than The Discovery, it does possess a certain uniqueness that can’t be denied. However, an uneven script, lack of cohesion, and it’s overly grim atmosphere hamper the film severely. If you’re looking for an uplifting tale about the hereafter, this is not your film. You’d be much better off watching Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
My rating System:
0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
The Discovery rates: 7/10