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.
There is a superficial idea championed by some movies that dishonesty sells. Heist films like Hell or High Water or Ocean’s Eleven suggest that a caper can handsomely reward the protagonist, if it’s properly executed. White lies can tell a person, “exactly what they need to hear” as a plot contrivance for furthering a character’s confidence, like Neo in The Matrix. And even films that deride dishonesty often do so by showcasing the extreme fall that accompanies an ill-gotten rise, even though the character doesn’t necessarily need to consider their lies to be a transgression at all; think The Wolf of Wall Street, Catch Me if You Can, or other examples of hubris-infused justice. Rare is the film that showcases the psychological destruction that a lie can wreak on a person’s life. Tim Burton’s Big Eyes is a fascinating exploration of precisely that idea.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
-Thomas Grey, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,1751
Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is often celebrated as the director’s first true masterwork. Adapting a novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, Kubrick’s film contemplates power struggles, justice, and the wastefulness of war. The crux of the story involves three French soldiers who are court-martialed for cowardice after retreating from an impossible attack, but Kubrick’s story is not a mere anti-war film. The trite idea that “war is bad” is taken as a given, and augmented by multiple impressive cinematic and storytelling techniques into an even more powerful statement: there is an utter absurdity to war, one that incentivizes an habitual abuse of power and a routine miscarriage of justice.
In the mission statement of this blog, I indicated that I would be approaching the field of film criticism from the perspective of a particular school of aesthetics – Romantic Realism. But, in order to establish what is meant by “Romantic Realism”, to explain its principles and apply its methods of analysis, there is a little background work that must be done first. There is a hierarchy to any field in philosophy, and we can’t begin with Romantic Realism without first discussing aesthetics as a whole, particularly in the context of film. This is the purpose of my first post on aesthetics – to define precisely what is meant by “film aesthetics”, and to provide a foundation on which we can build more complex ideas.