In the near future, we have scientific proof that there’s life after death.
It isn’t clear what—or where—that afterlife is. It’s certain, though, that some part of us continues after our bodies die. Thanks to Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), what was once religious superstition is now scientific fact; his discovery has changed the way people think about existence. It’s also had an unexpected and darkly logical side effect: People have started killing themselves.
In the two years following Thomas’ discovery, just over four million people have committed suicide. People kill themselves alone. People kill themselves in suicide groups. People get together with their families so they can all kill themselves in their living rooms. And all of them are killing themselves to speed their arrival to the afterlife—killing themselves “just to fucking get there,” as grumpy neurologist Will (Jason Segel) puts it. Wherever “there” is, Will isn’t convinced it’ll be any better. “We’re a bunch of people running around making the same mistakes over and over,” he points out, “and I don’t know why we think it’ll be different somewhere else.”
If The Discovery—which debuted at Sundance in January, and hits Netflix this Friday—sounds just a bit dour, well, yeah. Largely set on a “dreary island” where the now-reclusive Thomas has purchased a creepy old estate where he can conduct further research (and also run a cult!), The Discovery is damp and dark, lit with the purgatorial grays of an overcast winter. (Come for the talk about death and metaphysics; stay for the seasonal affective disorder.) Luckily, The Discovery’s unrelenting moroseness is balanced out by a fantastic cast: There’s Redford and Segel, plus Rooney Mara and Friday Night Lights’ Jesse Plemons. (Landry forever.)
Cooped up in the estate—among both Thomas’ handmade scientific instruments and his jumpsuit-clad followers—Will and Isla (Mara) try to make sense of the discovery and its implications. Thomas, meanwhile, shrugs off accusations that he’s responsible for Earth’s four million (and counting) suicides. He’s more focused learning what, exactly, the afterlife is. “We opened the door for these people, Will,” Thomas explains. “They know it’s there. Now we have to show them what’s behind it.”
The Discovery is the latest from The One I Love filmmaker Charlie McDowell, and like The One I Love, it relies on a high-concept premise but focuses on character. (Is there a term for mumblecore sci-fi? Mumble-fi?) It’s a good instinct, but with The Discovery, it goes awry, as the film lurches between thriller, family drama, mystery, and romance (if you guessed Will goes all puppy-eyed for the stereotypically quirky-yet-damaged Isla, you win... well, nothing, because clearly). Even as we get intriguing glimpses of a world where suicide has become the norm (“I’d rather stick my dick in a wood-chipper than go to another fucking funeral,” Plemons deadpans), we’re also stuck with a strangely jaunty interlude in which Will and Isla steal a corpse from a morgue; even as Redford subtly portrays a man carrying a lifetime of mistakes, the plot requires him to slowly transform into a mad scientist in a storm-wracked castle. Each weird new idea is pushed aside by characters launching monologues at each other; every character bit is overshadowed by another fuzzily described discovery about the afterlife. The Discovery is less than the sum of its parts, and one of those movies where, midway through, you realize it feels longer than it is.
Eventually, though, an ending does come—somehow both ambitious and underwhelming, it drains much of the film’s originality into something that’s disappointingly familiar. “I think it’s our instinct to search for meaning, and when there is none, it’s our instinct to create meaning and we just... lie,” Will grumpily grumps earlier in the film. “We lie to ourselves.”
Which, you know, true. But in retrospect, that sentiment also describes The Discovery—it’s an earnest search for meaning that ends up not revealing much at all.