If the existence of an afterlife were scientifically proven beyond doubt, would you commit suicide to get there? This is the question facing the world in The Discovery, where Robert Redford’s Dr. Thomas Harber has discovered concrete proof of consciousness leaving the mind upon death. Upon publicizing this revelation, the mass suicides begin. After all, if you’ve got problems, why try to solve them when you can take the plunge and start afresh in the next world?
The film is set two years after the discovery, and by now, millions of people have shuffled themselves into the hereafter (the government helpfully keeps count by putting the death total on LED billboards). Writer/director Charlie McDowell quickly establishes a humanity that’s going out with a yawn rather than a bang. The roads are empty, there are enough seats on a public transport to put your feet up, hospitals are unmanned, the living are sick of endless funerals, and the morgue attendants are frazzled through overwork.
It’s an elegiac world, recalling Alfonso Cuarón’s similarly subdued Children of Men. Into the middle of this walks the gloomy presence of Will (Jason Segel), the son of Dr. Harber. He’s skeptical of his father’s conclusions and nurses a deep guilt for having publicized their findings, feeling responsible for the death it’s wrought. On the ferry over to his father’s overcast and drizzly Rhode Island home he meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a spikily quizzical young woman who he makes expository chit-chat with before they part – with her subsequently assuring him she’s glad they’ll never meet again (spoiler, they meet again like 5 minutes later).
Will (and soon Isla) head to Doctor Harber to discover he’s taken over a large mansion and created a weird cult in which suicide survivors and the bereaved walk around in color-coded jumpsuits. The purpose of this creepy community is to continue his experiments, specifically to probe beyond the veil and discover precisely what it is that awaits the dead.
The Discovery‘s core concept is intensely powerful. McDowell keeps the facts of the earthshaking scientific discovery just vague enough to keep it plausible, and the state of the world we encounter makes a certain amount of sense. Robert Redford’s Doctor Harber is an appropriately complex presence, teetering on the edge of mad scientist as he’s inexorably driven to complete his life’s work. The actual science we see is pleasantly chunky – low-resolution monitors, old computers, and a crown of tangled wires that make for a striking brain/computer interface. It’s an intensely intriguing set-up and, like Dr. Harber, we’re soon desperate for answers.
So, it’s with an increasing sense of deflation that the film gradually reveals that it’s less interested in revealing them and more about the growing relationship between Segel and Mara’s ultra-morose (and chemistry free) duo as they slowly couple up. If these characters were as compelling as the world they inhabit McDowell might be on to something, but they’re cyphers right up to the final reel, trapped in dull emotional stasis.
Worse still, the film gives them a half-baked mystery to solve that stodgily clogs up the middle of the movie. They’re trying to decode some enigmatic video footage: a detective hunt that involves driving about, repeatedly revisiting locations, and learning way too much about an absent character who’s utterly peripheral to the narrative. Worst of all, it’s soon blinding obvious what the video footage depicts. It’s never good when the audience has to impatiently wait for the characters to catch up with what they’ve worked out 20 minutes before.
Compounding this frustration is the increasing sense that we’ve skipped over the most interesting stories in this world. It’s never good to review the film you want to see, but seeing (rather than being told about) the immediate impact of Dr. Harber’s discovery would be fascinating. Watching humanity struggling to process what this means and dealing with the first waves of mass suicide would be powerful cinema. Instead, we’re stuck with Indie Cinema 101: two sadsacks mumbling to each other on an overcast beach.
McDowell attempts to enliven the finale with a burst of Charlie Kaufman-esque narrative origami, but not only is this so poorly communicated that it’s difficult to even tell what’s happening, but it also doesn’t make a great deal of emotional sense. It’s a disappointingly vague end to The Discovery, a film that, to put it bluntly, doesn’t have the balls to fully explore the implications of the world it creates.
The Discovery has a fantastic premise but lacks the ambition. imagination or intellect to explore it satisfyingly. Instead, we're left with a gloomy, thinly written emotional drama.