‘The Discovery’ is a heady exploration of that one question we’ve all asked at some point: what happens after we die? Is there such thing as an afterlife?
Charlie McDowell’s film doesn’t try to answer such theoretical questions in the big picture – how could it? – but tries to give any of it meaning within the realm of his story. ‘The Discovery’, by nature, is a very ambitious film, which gives its characters a lot of questions to ask without ever feeling the need to give them much of a concrete answer. The Discovery revels in its ambiguity.
The film opens with Dr. Thomas Harber (Robert Redford, convincing and compelling as ever) giving an interview on his findings, which support the notion of an afterlife. Since announcing his assertion, there have been a wave of suicides around the country with people eager for an opportunity to start anew. As the death toll rises, questions and speculation begin to rise.
Fast-forward over a year and Will (Jason Segal), Harber’s son, is headed home to check in on his father. Will is a sullen individual – I don’t think he cracks a smile once in the movie – who seems worn down by life and by being Dr. Thomas Harber’s son. His father lives in an asylum-like compound, where he continues to experiment with the help of a devoted team, including Will’s younger brother (Jesse Plemmons).
Will isn’t too keen to get involved with his father’s cult-of-sorts but is interested in helping the wayward Isla (Rooney Mara), who he met on the ferry. Isla is one of those who have been inspired by Harber’s work regarding the afterlife and wishes to end her own life to see what’s next.
In only his second feature film, McDowell has proven to be a director with big ideas, never settling for conventionality (he previous directed The One I Love, which is worth seeking out). ‘The Discovery’, in all of its ho-hum doom and gloom – is worth watching when it premieres on Netflix on March 31 merely for its desire to draw you in with its big ideas. While never not interesting, the movie sometimes gets in its own way and ultimately leads to a conclusion, which doesn’t land quite as strong as everything that came before it.
The entire film has a fitting sense of dread, which compliments the heavy material. McDowell wins here purely on creating a world and atmosphere, allowing us to be present in this not-too-distant future. Even with all of its flaws and tendency to be a bit too convoluted, ‘The Discovery’ is continued reassure McDowell is a filmmaker to watch.