What if science could prove the existence of an afterlife, but not prove what exactly that afterlife is or where it takes us?
That’s the question explored in the new Netflix movie The Discovery, the sophomore effort from director/writer Charlie McDowell and his co-writer Justin Lader. In 2014, they commanded attention with their trippy, sci-fi mind fuck Mark Duplass/Elisabeth Moss two-hander The One I Love, which used the notion of alternate realities and doppelgangers to navigate the murky waters of relationship politics. Now, The Discovery stars Jason Segel and Rooney Mara as two lost souls struggling to soldier on in a world newly freed from the ever-present fear of inevitable death. Think of it as Seeking a Friend for the End of the World As We Know It.
After a dramatic cold open introducing us to Robert Redford as Thomas Harbor, the scientist behind the discovery of the afterlife, we meet Segel as a grief-stricken neurologist named Will on a ferry ride to destinations unknown. Before you can even finish saying Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he meets a wild-haired livewire named Isla (Mara, looking slightly like an iZombie character) whose manic tendencies force him into having a conversation about life and the sorry state of the world.
Directly behind them on the ferry is an electronic ticker displaying a live tally of the number of worldwide suicides since the discovery (it’s over 4 million). A newscast on a nearby TV describes it as people offing themselves in the hopes of “getting there,” i.e. the afterlife. Will is skeptical of the scientific evidence behind the discovery while Isla is simply more concerned with the social politics of it all, such as whether or not taking part in a group suicide is the ultimate sign of weakness. Once off the ferry, they part ways.
Curiously absent from their conversation is any reference to morality or religion. The Discovery posits a world in which faith and science have merged. Rather than worship at the feet of God proxies who frame the afterlife in moral terms people now flock to the scientists who might be able to reveal what exactly the afterlife looks like. Hell isn’t referenced until nearly an hour into the movie, and heaven goes completely unmentioned. We’re meant to infer the suicides are due to people believing the afterlife will somehow be better, more heaven than hell.
The only real religious presence felt in the film is via the jumpsuit-adorned cult members who now do the bidding of Thomas at his remote island research facility. He’s uncomfortable with the situation, at one point telling a devout follower, “Show me someone who relies on faith and I’ll show you someone who’s given up control over whatever it is they believe.”
What Will declines to tell Isla during their ferry conversation is that he’s actually Thomas’ son. In fact, he helped influence and then later contributed to his father’s groundbreaking research. However, he feels nothing but regret and guilt for his actions and the skyrocketing suicide rate they helped inspire. He has returned home to officially debunk his father’s theory, but doing so won’t be as simple as he thought. What ensues is part-mystery, part-love story (Isla eventually ends up at the compound with Will), part-dystopia, part-family drama, and a whole lot of quiet, dimly lit conversations.
Thus, The Discovery fits right in with Netflix’s recent embrace of hard-to-describe genre mash-ups which take unique approaches to discussions of death and/or the afterlife. See also: The OA and 13 Reasons Why. However, The Discovery’s exploration of the possibility of life after death is meant to be metaphorical. As Segel recently told KPCC’s The Frame:
I always thought of the film as a metaphor. We do this in our everyday life. We say, “My life is not going well in New York. I don’t like my current girlfriend and my current job. So, I am going to up and move to Los Angeles, and get a new girlfriend and a new job and a new house and that’s going to solve it.” Then you find out almost inevitably that you take yourself with you no matter where you go. That, to me, was always the metaphor of the movie. This thing that we do, it’s what a mid-life crisis is: I’m giving up what I got for the unknown.
And the film’s realization of that metaphor, mostly via Will and Isla’s mutually life-saving love for one another, is…fine. Really, in general, the entire film is perfectly fine. It’s meant to inspire thoughtful after-viewing conversations about theology and life’s big questions, but that might be a challenge for those prone to falling asleep during moody, drab indies. Plus, you’ll likely find yourself asking questions the film never bothers with, considering how much it has to busy itself with exploring not the wide-reaching ramifications of the titular discovery but instead the motivations for the research behind it (a dead wife/mom lingers in Thomas/Will’s background).
By the time The Discovery pivots to its twisty third-act reveal you can’t help but feel that a great premise for a film has been squandered on mumble core drama and odd tonal shifts (e.g., there’s a broad comedy body heist sequence). Thus, the various capable of performances on hand, which also includes Jesse Plemons and Riley Keough in stand-out supporting roles, are ultimately in service to something which falls well short of greatness but at least registers as being watchable.
The message of the movie is that we have to focus on improving ourselves instead of daydreaming about the various fantasies in which our lives would be improved by change, and that is communicated through a metaphorical sci-fi scenario in which the world has given up on life in the hopes of finding something better in the afterlife. However, the vastness of that scenario plays second fiddle to fathers-and-sons character drama and a romance which never feels completely believable, a crucial failure since it forms the emotional core of the story. Plus, the twisty final reveal seems to actually betray the central metaphor.
We’re left with the type of mildly star-studded Sundance indie which earns applause for its ambitions but not so much its execution. In the past, this is the type of film which would disappear into VOD no-man’s land, but now here it is on Netflix for all of us to watch and conclude, “Meh. I’ve seen worse.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
A great premise with a mumblecore delivery and twist-for-twist’s sake conclusion gives The Discovery the feel of a perfectly watchable movie which could have been so much more.