In “The Discovery,” released on Netflix March 31, there’s a lot of talk about people “trying to get there,” where “there” is the newly-discovered afterlife and the “trying to” part means suicide. “Trying to get there” also describes the experience of waiting for the ending of “The Discovery,” which starts off with an intriguing premise but tepidly moves toward a convoluted ending.
In this sci-fi drama/pseudo-romance from Charlie McDowell (“The One I Love”), neurologist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford, doing some of his best work within the first five minutes of the film) has discovered that there is indeed an afterlife, some other plane of existence. However, just where that afterlife is remains a mystery, one that Harbor dedicates his life to solving.
After learning of the afterlife, millions of people “try to get there” through various suicidal means. In the two years since The Discovery, the suicide rate rises by the millions. This fact doesn’t sit well with Harbor’s son Will (Jason Segel, moping more than when Lindsay Weir’s mom accidentally broke up with Nick Andopolis), also a neurologist.
Will resents Thomas for the loss of life his research has caused. He’s on his way to visit Thomas when he meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a woman who wants nothing more than to be left alone as she tries to drown herself. Will saves her and eventually takes her in at Thomas’ isolated Gothic mansion that also houses a cult-like group of people who have been affected by suicide and help Thomas with his experiments. When Thomas finds a way to record the afterlife, Will and Isla go sleuthing to prove that the research is a fraud, and end up discovering something bigger than Thomas ever imagined.
Along the way, we meet Thomas’ other son Toby (Jesse Plemons), who seems to be having the most fun out of the entire cast, turning a minor part into a scene-stealer every chance he gets. We’re treated to a convoluted romance between Will and Isla. Tiny bits of the post-Discovery world are built by some terse dialogue exchanges (“I once gave a kid a cancer diagnosis, and she reacted like I’d given her a winning lottery ticket”; “I’d rather stick my [penis] in a wood chipper than go to another funeral”) and tight camerawork (a lingering shot of Will sitting in front of a hospital board with a suicide death ticker and a sign that says “Suicide is not the answer, stay in this life”; a sad overhead shot of an empty hospital parking lot). Speaking of the post-Discovery world, it’s foggy and dimly lit, muted shades of gray enhancing the film’s dreadful mood.
However, not much attention is given to the impact of The Discovery on other people, and even less attention is paid to the question of morality in life as it relates to belief in death. Not much examination is given to the question of whether life intrinsically means something even when faced with a possible afterlife. And while the promise of life after death has been the crux of many world religions, “The Discovery” skirts that issue with a handy bit of dialogue from Thomas: “Show me someone who relies on faith and I’ll show you someone who’s given up control over whatever it is they believe.” There could have been an interesting commentary here about the way many religions (some sects of Christianity chief among them) view this world as nothing more than a holding place until we are reunited with a Creator or punished alongside its adversary once we kick the bucket. Here, there’s no mention of religion or god because “The Discovery” isn’t about those questions. Once you see the ending, it’s actually about regrets and how we live (and die) with them.
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Minor spoilers follow for the ending of “The Discovery”:
All of the lofty questions above are cast aside in favor of the bigger mystery of what exactly Thomas is recording when he records the afterlife. When a person is put under and hooked up to the glorified MRI machine that Thomas uses, the afterlife they experience is indeed another plane of existence. It’s an alternate reality to their own life, one in which they can turn the tide on the biggest regret in their life on earth before moving on into their life in death. No heaven, no hell, no purgatory, at least not in the traditionally understood sense. Just a way to make amends and move on.
Later, when one last final twist is revealed, it feels cheap and unearned after the intentionally muddy and plodding plot. By the time the film ends, it arrives at what feels like a slower, more self-important afterlife of “Black Mirror,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and McDowell’s better, similarly high-concept “The One I Love.” By that point, you just want “The Discovery” to “get there” and be over.
Starring: Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, Mary Steenburgen, Riley Keough
Rating: Not rated; probably would be rated “R” for language, violence, thematic material
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Theaters: Streaming right now on Netflix