Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
What happens after we die? This is a question that humanity has asked and debated since the dawn of time. Many more people have debated over the nature of the soul and its existence and others have debated what the afterlife looks like. Netflix’s new film The Discovery directed by Charlie McDowell and written by Justin Lader questions the existence of the afterlife in a story that sounds more interesting than its execution. Featuring a strong cast including Robert Redford, Jason Segel and Rooney Mara it is hard to believe that a film with this much talent would progress into a muddled mess after a strong beginning presents such a unique and thoughtful premise.
“The Discovery” as everyone in the film refers to it, is the discovery, made by Robert Redford’s Thomas, that there is in fact an afterlife. When the film begins, Thomas is in the middle of an interview where it is discovered that suicides have increased to an alarming rate after his discovery is made public. It is also revealed that while Thomas has proven the existence of an afterlife, he has no clue what the afterlife actually looks like. 6 months after that interview, Thomas’s son, Will (played by Jason Segel), travels to the island where Thomas is conducting his research into what the afterlife actually looks like. On his way to the island, Will meets Isla (Rooney Mara) a girl who has her own thoughts an opinions on “the discovery.” Once Will arrives on the island, he finds that his father has built a new machine to see what the afterlife looks like. After a second encounter with Isla, she joins Will as he tries to figure out what it is his father built.
Even with the sci-fi undertones, the film plays out like a drama. The film tries to focus on a lot of different things in order to bring everything together in the end, which happens to varying degrees of success. The first plot thread is Thomas’s new machine and the question of what the afterlife really looks like. It’s discovered early in the film that Will had participated in Thomas’s initial experiments up until “the discovery” was made and something happen that tried their family. Will chose to not believe in “the discovery” the same way the rest of the world did. Will’s driving motivation at the beginning of the film to see his father is so that he can talk him out of continuing his experiments. He wants Thomas to tell the world he lied about “the discovery” so that people will stop killing themselves. The core mystery of the film (what is the afterlife?) doesn’t even begin to unfold until about halfway through when Thomas uses his experimental machine for the first time.
The second main plot threat the film focuses on is Will’s relation ship to Isla. Over the course of the film they grow closer together, and it appears they fall in love. Like the rest of the plot threads in this film, their relationship feels far from legitimate. The chemistry between the two actors is virtually non-existent. It’s not unusual for a film to feature two lovers who are completely different from each other come together, but this film fails to make it happen with these two. They both share some tragic back stories, but neither relate to each other on a deep level outside of that. Both character’s feel like caricatures of character archetypes found in these types of dramas. Will is the skeptical son with a tragic past. Isla is the unemotional loner with a tragic past. Their tragedy is what brings them together, but it is not enough for their relationship to feel real.
The third plot thread consists of several small things that have been added to the film to add a certain level of oddity to it. Once Will arrives on his father’s compound he sees everybody wearing different colored jumpsuits. Will mentions how cult-like everything on the compound appears, but that’s as far as that idea makes it. When one of the inhabitants of the compound shows up at the end and causes problems it feels out of place with the rest of the film because of how little attention the film gives to the inhabitants of the compound and the hierarchy that has been established. It’s when this inhabitant shows up that the film climaxes, and attempts to neatly tie everything together. The problem is that the film spent so much time taking the mystery of the film through so many ideas that this climax feels rushed and out of place. Everything after the climax is the film trying to explain everything that happened and what it was Thomas actually discovered about the afterlife. It’s an ending that makes less sense the more you try to understand it. It’s also an ending that is very predictable based on how similar films play out and the choice of camera work throughout the film.
Compared with Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader’s first film effort, The One I Love, with Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, The Discovery feels like a weak attempt at trying to recreate success. It’s a boring film that drags for the first 45 minutes because of the amount of time it takes to establish the characters and the world in which these characters inhabit. The film cares too much about the ending it tries to surprise you with instead of making any sort of philosophical statement about the questions it explores. While the film has an interesting and original concept at its core, the film spends too much time focusing on the wrong people and the wrong events surrounding “the discovery.”