The Discovery: EW review
What would happen if there was absolute scientific proof of an afterlife? That death isn’t the end, but the beginning of something else? That’s the big philosophical mystery that drives Charlie McDowell’s downbeat, mildly engaging science fiction Möbius strip, The Discovery. The film, which premiered at Sundance back in January, simultaneously opens in theaters and debuts on Netflix today.
The film’s strongest moments are without question the opening ones. Robert Redford, playing a charismatic scientist named Thomas Harper, is giving a sit-down TV interview to a reporter about his groundbreaking new discovery about the existence of an afterlife. But it quickly becomes clear that neither he nor anyone else could have anticipated what his breakthrough would lead to. Now that there’s no fear of death, people are committing suicide in alarming numbers—and the blame (rightly or wrongly) lands at Dr. Harper’s feet. He’s a hero and a monster. An incident that brings the interview to a sudden, violent end is both shocking and drives the story’s theme home with brilliant, blunt force. Sadly, it’s all pretty much downhill from there.
Suddenly, it’s a year later. And Dr. Harper’s son, Will (Jason Segel in glum, hangdog mode) is on his way to visit his father, who’s now hiding out on a wintry, fog-shrouded island in New England. People are still killing themselves (or, in the movie’s language, they’re trying to “get there”), which makes Dr. Harper overly private and paranoid. He and his research team (along with a cult of depressed patients in color-coded jumpsuits) have taken up residence in an old dilapidated mansion. On the empty ferry boat, Will meets a platinum-blond Rooney Mara, who plays a troubled young woman named Isla. There’s something familiar about her. Their paths will cross again…and again.
Will disapproves of his father’s work. Which makes sense since Redford’s Dr. Harper has a habit of flat-lining himself in order to see what lies beyond before having his team (which includes his other son, played Jesse Plemons) shock him back to life. As Will tries to sabotage his mad-scientist father and get Mara’s Isla to share her secrets, the movie turns into a plodding, somber thriller minus the thrills. McDowell, who co-wrote the script with Justin Lader, had an intriguing what-if idea. But it feels like they never figured out what to do with it. The Discovery is a puzzle of a movie. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of puzzle you get half way through and decide to move on to something else. C+