‘The Discovery’ Review: Netflix’s Mysterious Afterlife Movie Doesn’t Quite Live Up to Its Ambitious Sci-Fi Premise
What happens when death becomes the most desirable part of life? Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery imagines a world where the afterlife has scientifically been proven, and as a result millions of people are committing suicide “to get there,” as it’s often referred to in the film’s not-so-distant future. But the biggest and most disturbing quandary is, what exactly is “there?” If life after death does exist, what if it’s worse than the world we know? Or perhaps an even scarier thought: What if it’s better?
Part Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, part Flatliners, The Discovery uses a dark sci-fi premise to explore those big existential questions. Conceptually, it’s an ambitious undertaking; but as fascinating and perplexing as it all is, I’m not sure McDowell’s film really achieves its goals.
The film wastes no time setting up its premise. It opens on Robert Redford’s Dr. Thomas Harbor who’s taping an interview with a TV host (played by McDowell’s mother, Mary Steenburgen). It’s been six months since Dr. Harbor’s unveiled his proof of the afterlife. After going into hiding following the global suicide epidemic, Dr. Harbor is back to respond to the phenomenon. When asked whether he feels responsibly for so many deaths, he responds with a confident, “No.” Moments later, a crew member interrupts the interview to thank Dr. Harbor, then shoots himself in the head.
We jump to a year and a half later, just days before the two year anniversary of “the discovery.” The world has gotten even more grim; the suicide rate is now 4 million and rising by the minute, public transport and morgues have their own digital death toll tickers, and funerals are as common as birthday parties. We meet Jason Segel’s Will heading to a foggy island on an empty ferry with Rooney Mara’s Isla, a forthright woman with platinum blonde hair.
After a brief but philosophically heavy conversation, the two part ways and we learn Will is on the island to visit his estranged father, Dr. Harbor. Since the TV suicide, Harbor’s gone into hiding again and acquired a small cult following. With the help of his other son Toby, a raggedy Jesse Plemons, Ron Canada’s quizzical Cooper, and Riley Keough’s Lacey, Harbor is conducting the final tests on his latest invention – a device he claims can record what the afterlife looks like. “We opened the door for people,” he explains to Will, who objects to the machine. “Now we have to show them what’s behind it.”
Most of The Discovery’s tension comes from Will, who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and his father, who’s dedication to his work led to a family tragedy. Things become more heated when Will finds Isla again and convinces his father to let her stay at the mansion. A relationship develops, but The Discovery wisely doesn’t turn into a romantic drama; their budding intimacy is more therapeutic than romantic.
McDowell’s premise has a ton of potential for a serious consideration of how humanity’s understanding of death affects our lives. But near its midpoint, The Discovery shifts focus onto Will’s family troubles, and in turn forgets many of its big philosophical questions. McDowell doesn’t so a whole lot of world-building in this film, and we hardly get a sense of what this new global status quo is like for anyone outside of Dr. Harbor’s circle of followers.
But my real skepticism and frustration with The Discovery has to do with the final 10 minutes, when the plot becomes incredibly convoluted. This is when the mysterious afterlife is explained (at least I think it is explained). The Discovery feels like a movie you need to watch two, maybe three times to put it all together. (At least on Netflix, where the film debuts on March 31, you’ll be able to pause and rewind this part.) Having only seen the film once, I can’t tell if The Discovery’s ultra twisty premise makes it smart and poignant, or a muddled mess that stumbles over too many ideas. The more I think about it, the more I’m leaning towards the latter. And yet for all its shortcomings, I’m still stuck thinking about the movie and eager to revisit it. At the very least, it did something right.