The Discovery (2017) / Drama-Mystery
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably R for language, disturbing content and some sensuality
Running Time: 110 min.
Cast: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough
Small role: Mary Steenburgen
Director: Charlie McDowell
Screenplay: Justin Lader, Charlie McDowell
Review published April 4, 2017
The Discovery offers up an interesting theoretical drama about what might occur from a sociological standpoint if it were to be proven that there's life after death. The film posits that the fear of death might no longer exist in many people, and some will even embrace it early, offing themselves on the hope that the next life will be a better one than the present.
Robert Redford (Pete's Dragon), whose Sundance Institute sparked the film project, co-stars as Dr. Thomas Harbor, who has catapulted to fame and prominence with his scientific discovery of evidence that there is indeed more to come when the human body has expired. Now all he needs is definitive proof. Nevertheless, just the evidence alone has the public convinced, to the point where the suicide rates skyrocket to the tune of several million people and growing every day. Building his own facility within a large compound on a secluded island, Dr. Harbor continues to experiment on himself in order to try to die for a few minutes and be revived in order to see relate his findings.
In comes Dr. Harbor's estranged son, Will (Segel, The End of the Tour), who has recently met Isla (Mara, Song to Song), a strange but attractive woman who happens to be the only other traveler on the ferry to the island. Once ashore, they part ways, but soon discover themselves at the same physical destination again, with Will looking to stop his father from pursuing this field of work on the fear that more people will kill themselves needlessly, while Isla is one of a select group of believers summoned to the island by Dr. Harbor to assist with the experiment.
The Discovery is co-written and directed by Charlie McDowell (Mara's real-life beau, now ex), who intrigued indie film audiences with his previous effort that had equally heady sci-fi questions, The One I Love. McDowell tackles the issues from a more insular standpoint, putting us right into the 'lion's den' among those who are seeking to prove the nature of what constitutes life after death, and explain where people might go once they get there. Stakes are personal and emotional for the characters rather than just scientific and analytical, which, in its turn, may remind some viewers from time to time of the Charlie Kaufman opus, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though done with a less artful or stylistic eye.
Although not built up for typical crowd-pleasing moments, McDowell's film emphasizes the characters and asks the thespians on board for more human performances than you might expect from such a high-concept premise. It doesn't get caught up in trying to over-explain the nature of the science involved, seeking a more philosophical and moral way of addressing the issues. Just because it might be possible to learn about what happens after death, should we? And what obligations might be to society if we were to have some proof of the outcome?
Further impressing are the performances given within the film -- nothing flashy, but they don't need to be, just enough to get us rooted into their particular plights and give the semblance of backstory and personal history to contrast others with different beliefs. Segel is quite good playing a mostly dramatic role leaving a little more of the comic relief to Jesse Plemons (Other People), who plays Will's younger brother and main assistant to their father's experiments, Toby. Rooney Mara, with her hair dyed blonde for this one, is also quite strong as the complicated young woman carrying wounds from a troubled past, who teases romantic possibilities, though finding her emotional core proves to be a challenge due to the thickness of the wall that she has put up since a certain tragedy has occurred. The flirtatious and faux-contentious banter between them is natural and the chemistry is palpable, leaving us to wonder what might have resulted if the film had put their possible relationship at the center of the plot's turns rather than the science.
The Discovery is a hard film to fully review without delving into areas where some might consider to be spoilers, so I'm forced to be vague about where the film goes from a plot and even a tone standpoint. I can say that the film answers some of the more provocative questions, but also will leave you with others, which does, at the very least, make for good conversation fodder for those who come out of seeing it trying to decipher what it all might mean. Even so, the ending may seem like a bit of a letdown for those hoping for the story to elevate into something powerful and profound. That's the tricky part of engaging with such a high concept premise -- the inevitability that the ending can't quite live up to the initial promise, and The Discovery tries valiantly to pluck at heartstrings with emotional beats that aren't quite earned for the last twenty minutes, leaving viewers who might have been initially hooked in a bit deflated.
Other films have tackled the theme of finding life after death, from Flatliners, to many recent faith-based films like Heaven is for Real and Miracles from Heaven, and a whole host of horror films both good and bad (mostly bad), yet The Discovery still offers enough fresh ideas and solid performances to make it stand out among the pack as one to sate those whose interests are piqued by the questions that all of us have pondered throughout our current lifetimes. If only the abbreviated and confusing ending could have been as impactful and resonant as McDowell is striving for, as it teases the romantic and emotional angles the film could have taken from the outset, and also an interest in where the film could go from there. I suppose there's an irony that we're more interested in where the story goes after the ending of a movie that is literally about our interest in what comes after our own ending.
©2017 Vince Leo