The Discovery has all the markings of a potent science fiction parable, but none of the follow-through. The central conceit, that a scientist has discovered irrefutable evidence that an afterlife exists, is simple yet wrought with fascinating consequences. But, as the film attempts to explore its ideas, it is bogged down by poor characters, confusing and unnecessary plot devices, and a banal ending that treads familiar paths, lacks visual storytelling fundamentals, and still confuses. As it stands, The Discovery feels less like a feature film, and more like an episode of Black Mirror – and a weak one at that.
The Discovery premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and was soon bought by Netflix. Writer-director Charlie McDowell and his writing partner Justin Lader open the film with precision and deftness: in media res, six-months after “The Discovery” made by Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) proving that an afterlife exists. Since then, suicide rates have skyrocketed as people seek out this certain afterlife, though no one really knows what it entails. Dr. Harbor appears on a TV interview to break his six-month silence, adamant that he feels no responsibility for those who have died. After the events of the interview, it’s not so clear that he still feels that way.
A year later, suicides have continued unabated, and we meet Dr. Harbor’s son Will (Jason Segel), returning home to his father. On the ferry, he meets a woman named Isla (Rooney Mara). They exchange banter in a sequence eerily similar to the train sequence from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Will is picked up by his brother Toby (Jesse Plemons), and the two drive off to their father’s new digs – a veritable cult compound complete with color-coded jumpsuits and peculiar rules. Their father is furthering the experiments that led to The Discovery, hoping to show the world what is beyond this life.
The execution is where it all falters. Once Isla is back in the picture, it is apparent that she and Will are going to have a relationship. The nature of that relationship is a sad re-tread of what we’ve seen before, and the two aren’t especially charismatic. The obvious cult allusion is handled head-on in the narrative, but feels unnecessary and confusing. It’s not clear why Dr. Harbor needs all of these people here, or what service he is providing for them, or whether the audience should respond to the religious imagery or allusion. It reeks of a “smart idea” with nothing smart about it. Worse, it distracts from the interesting portion of the narrative, which involves Isla and Will solving a peculiar mystery.
Up until the climax, everything is serviceable, if a bit bland. But, the final 15 minutes of The Discovery damages the film beyond repair. It is difficult to explain the full extent of the awfulness of this film’s ending without delving into spoilers, but I will endeavor to do just that.
First, there is a large leap-of-faith that is both nonsensical from a logic standpoint and unearned from an emotional standpoint. We’re asked to believe in Will’s technical capabilities and emotional decisiveness, when he’s shown very little of either up until now. This is just the start, though. Once Will travels to the other side (not a spoiler, he’s hooked up to the machine in the promotional material), the basic rules of narrative fall apart. Big revelations are delivered through exposition . . . in the climax of the film. This isn’t The Sixth Sense where previous events in the story are given new interpretations (though there is some of that, too). This is information fundamental to the way the world of the film works, and it is just one character explaining it to another character. It gets even worse. It’s not clear or understood why the character cursed with expository dialogue even understands everything now. Then, there’s a final turn that makes absolutely no sense, given the things we’ve just learned about.
The failure is comprehensive. The narrative lead-up strains belief. The actual content is bland and familiar. The delivery is hackneyed and lacks any cinematic power. And then the film abandons whatever rules it just established, all while hand-waving a vague explanation. Content, form, execution – it’s all wrong.
Look, endings are hard, and The Discovery is not the first movie to struggle down the home stretch – nor will it be the last. Unfortunately, because it exists within a genre that intends to establish a different world based on a singular conceit and then unravel that idea in interesting ways, this failure seems especially damaging. There is a skeleton of a solid story here and a great concept, but The Discovery can’t deliver on them.