Synopsis – Two years after the afterlife is scientifically proven, a man attempts to help a young woman break away from her dark past.
My Take – In matters of original content, Netflix has been on somewhat of a dream run for the past few years. While they are slowly expanding themselves into big budget film territory (like the upcoming Will Smith starrer Bright and the Martin Scorsese directed Irishman) aside from the terrible Adam Sandler comedies they keep churning out for some reason, Netflix has been a robust supporter of small budgeted genre films on the side, with mixed results. Nevertheless I was intrigued by the basic premise of this Charlie McDowell directed film, the scientific discovery of the afterlife, plus a good cast, what could go wrong, right? Well, I guess a lot could. Honestly, I thought the basic idea featuring the afterlife was interesting and well-presented, plus there is a reason why Robert Redford has been a leading man for over 50 years and it’s always a pleasure to see him on screen, but the implementation isn’t as refined as expected and only works in bits n pieces. It’s a thoughtful feature that experiments with existential elements and poses some intriguing questions but it neither presents it in a convincing manner nor remains thoroughly gripping. It’s obvious that co-screenwriters Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader wanted to make a film on the lines of Altered States & Brainstorm, however, some structural and characterization problems diverted the attention from the main themes, making the film a diffuse and not very satisfactory experience which couldn’t make the original concept justice. Don’t be fooled by its trailers, this one is not a horror film, but an insipid and monotonous pseudo-scientific drama. The story follows Will Harbor (Jason Segel), who in the near future is on an island ferry to visit his father, who he hasn’t spoken to since their fall out after the death of his mother. It has also been two years since his father, Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), a scientist, who proved the existence of afterlife, leading to a massive wave of increase in suicides all around the globe. Everything seems gray and eerily desolate, and there’s only one other person aboard the vessel with Will—the mysterious Isla (Rooney Mara), a troubled woman that lost her five-year son, who Will ends up talking to, and despite parting way on arrival, Will invites her to stay at his father’s estate, where he and Will’s brother Toby (Jesse Plemons) have been running a sad, cult-like community of people affected by suicide.
Here, Will pressured by the suicides that are taking place across the globe and more so by the reaction of people left behind, he has been working on a machine to record what happens in the moments after death by flat-lining, for a lack of a better way of putting it, they can make a more informed choice/decision. Thomas is at least outwardly unperturbed by the widespread consequences of his research, but Will is looking to hold him accountable for the world he’s helped engender, while also delving into his new findings. Like I mentioned before the film is at its strongest in concept, but falters somewhat in execution. The opening scene is a successful attempt in grabbing your attention, where Thomas makes a case for the importance of divulging even the most potentially dangerous secrets to the public. To Thomas, people have a right to know when science has found explanations for the previously unexplained, and that right is unquestionable. Even in this context, in which Thomas has built a machine that definitively proves the existence of life beyond human death, he believes that people have to be shown the door, so that they can make the choice to walk through if they see fit. (“How can you keep a discovery so vital to our existence a secret?”) He makes this case during a television interview, one which ends with the cameraman committing suicide on live television, emboldened by Thomas’ discovery. Subsequent events unfold in a somewhat predictable fashion but don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a horror movie because that’s not really what it is although it does incorporate elements of each. What it is at heart in fact is a rather syrupy love story. In fact the film-makers may have shot themselves in the foot here as its intended audience may be put off by the horror scenes while the horror crowd will see the tag ‘love story’ and decide this is too schmaltzy for them, and they’d be right. But it’s the pacing that never manages to keep up. Once we meet Will, the movie starts to drag a little and lose its focus. Instead of tackling the subject head on, the film veers off into little adventures, like finding a corpse — which of course is a great opportunity for our lovebirds to bond. After a weak middle, the film takes a turn into stupid, with our previously never-curious scientist doing the death dance himself. This result in a final explanation of how the afterlife works, which feels like the film ran out of ideas and wanted to wrap things up real quick. The film’s climax offers us a nice little twist, as predictable as it might have been, but decides to explain what’s happening in dialogue rather than just showing us, and turns the focus of the movie away from the interesting concept towards something a little more Eternal Sunshine. Perhaps hampered by budget restraint’s (although this hardly seems to be a problem for Netflix originals these days) or perhaps just a lack of overall vision. The script is where the problem lies, for the brilliant hypothesis that the writers came up with isn’t meticulously explored as if they couldn’t figure out what to do with it, plus none of the characters inhabiting its future-setting are compelling enough. The plot wrapped around its theory begins on a promising note but by the time it ends, it finds itself in a familiar territory. The cold color palette, overcast ambiance & muted textures evoke a grim, hopeless future which fits the story requirements. The film showcases glimmers of what could be in stall for us whether it’s the oft mentioned suicides, the cult like following Harbor has garnered thanks to his work or Will’s and Isla’s investigation into a possible glimpse of the afterlife they have recorded but all these intriguing elements are quickly swept under the rug and while the film’s final reveal makes the journey feel more rewarding than it actually is, you can’t help but escape the feeling the film has short-changed its viewers with a mediocre effort of a far more interesting story.
I was genuinely surprised by the direction the story took, despite the fact that, to agree with the other reviewer, it does end up boiling down to an over-sweet love story. I mean, the plot explains why such a strange pairing with such improbable coincidences bringing them together, would take place, but still, I think it’s a shame that a story that was interesting on its own, had to suffer by being made the afterthought of such a shallow love story. Also, the science of course is hokum, but there are several large plot holes, like giant gaping craters, like for example, the afterlife proved incontrovertibly would seem to imply peer review and other scientists being involved. Then why does the film act like Redford’s character alone can do this research? Why do they pretend like if he hides his findings it will even matter? Surely someone else in the World is doing this same research. Personally I would have preferred they simply went with the idea that the research was flawed, humans look for meaning and patterns where there are none, and that Redford’s character was responsible for millions of deaths. Not exactly a crowd-pleasing ending, but it’s better than what they came up with. Nevertheless, though the movie tried to be prolific and profound, it was neither. There’s a vague plot hook to the brain-scanning (which Will and Isla begin to dabble with themselves) and a quasi-mystery to solve, but little else in the film beyond the characters poring over the nominal, obvious issues of Thomas’s work. When McDowell’s characters discuss his heady concepts, they don’t quite feel like real people. Their circular discussions about the meaning of life feature the kinds of points and counter-points that might be bandied around in a philosophy seminar—and McDowell never manages to make these scenes feel truly engaging. As a result, much of the film feels stuck in the pitch stage, introducing viewers to the world it’s trying to create, without giving them much to be invested in past the idea of a provable afterlife. The One I Love, McDowell’s equally intriguing first feature, was a surreal fantasy that turned couples therapy into a bizarre cloning experiment, in which a troubled husband and wife meet idealized doppelgangers of themselves. But that film, too, suffered from a similar shallowness. Coming to the performances, for one, I really like Jason Segal in comedic roles like Forgetting Sarah Marshall & How I Met Your Mother, and really wanted to like him in this. Unfortunately, here he leaves a lot to be desired, plus his character was just someone you normally wouldn’t be that interested in or care about. Robert Redford, unsurprisingly, offers the strongest performance of the movie and Jesse Plemons manages to balance a comedic character with more melancholic beats rather well, creating an engaging character who also offers most of the film’s humor. Rooney Mara is Rooney Mara, doing what she does well enough, but dragged down by unnatural dialogue that attempts to be deeper and edgier than it really is. On the whole, ‘The Discovery’ is a mediocre film which despite an intriguing premise is let down by its non-captivating execution.
Directed – Charlie McDowell
Rated – TV-MA
Run Time – 102 minutes