*The Discovery is impossible to talk about without delving into spoilers. With that in mind, if you haven't seen Charlie McDowell's film yet, I encourage you to check it out before reading this review as it will contain SPOILERS.*
I've written before about how some movies succeed on ambition alone. Some movies just deal with such compelling themes and amazing ideas that no procedural flaws can prevent them from maintaining a permanent spot in the mind of their audience. The Discovery is one of those movies. The film, which premiered at Sundance and is now on Netflix, certainly has its fair share of structural issues. Sometimes the pacing is a bit too sluggish, and despite an infinite amount of interesting concepts, some of the main ideas feel a bit half-baked. But I just can't get this movie out of my head. I want to talk about it, I want to keep thinking about it, and I want to endlessly dissect its ideas about life and what comes after. It isn't a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but sometimes, an imperfect film still manages to put it all together in the end. The Discovery is uncommonly ambitious, an epic film told on an intimate scale. Flaws be damned- this movie is special.
In a near future (the exact timeline is never made clear), a shocking discovery is made that changes the course of human history. In the study that serves as the culmination of his life's work, Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) reveals to the world that he has overwhelming proof of the existence of an afterlife. As you would expect, this discovery sends the world into chaos. The suicide rate immediately skyrockets, as people take their own life in the hopes of finding something better on the other side. As the film begins, Harbor conducts his first TV interview with a concerned journalist (Mary Steenburgen, in an incredibly brief cameo) who chastises him for ignoring the public concerns in the wake of millions of suicides. After an on-camera suicide by a production assistant, Harbor disappears again, allowing the toll to reach over 4 million as he continues his research.
The story begins with his son, Will (Jason Segel), a brilliant, reserved neuroscientist who is traveling to his reclusive father's remote location to get him to end the madness of his research. On the boat ride over, Will meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a mysterious woman who is heading to the dreary island for unknown reasons. The two hit it off in a strange way, but Will bids her farewell, only to save her days later after a frightening suicide attempt. At his father's castle location, Will finds a cult-like following of people who are all under the unique protection of Thomas. Will's brother (Jesse Plemons) has been assisting with the research, and in the process, Thomas has created a machine that he believes creates a glimpse of the afterlife. As the twists pile up and as the mystery grows stranger, Will discovers the truth at the heart of his father's groundbreaking discovery.
The Discovery feels like mumblecore Kubrick which, believe it or not, is actually a compliment. If Kubrick had positioned the mysteries of the universe in a uniquely human way, you'd probably end up with something like this. McDowell clearly loves the legendary director's sense of visual unity, as he designs Dr. Harbor's secluded castle as a Kubrickian fever dream, accompanied by matching uniforms and crisp, clean production design. He mixes this with a unique romantic angle and some strong handheld camerawork that stands as a hallmark of indie film. The Discovery is an incredibly impressive film from a technical perspective, assisted by gorgeous cinematography and a consistent visual palette that sets the tone of McDowell's odyssey. But despite the director's effectiveness as a filmmaker, the strongest aspect of this film is the central question that McDowell asks:
What is your greatest regret, and how would a different decision change your life?
While experimenting with his father's machine, Will finds a video that displays something from the mind of their cadaver. Initially he believes that this is evidence that his father built a machine that records memory, but he soon realizes the unique truth about the afterlife- it takes you to the source of your greatest regret and allows you to live your life until you've managed to right that terrible wrong. For Thomas, it's returning to the moment when he put work over his wife, causing her to take her own life and inspire a lifetime of work. For Will, it's saving the life of a woman who he once had a chance encounter with. After a bumpy road of material that alternates between being engaging and dull, this final twist in McDowell's narrative is a true revelation, one that captured my attention and sent my jaw to the floor.
If you ask certain people who know me, they'll probably tell you that I'm obsessed with the idea of alternate timelines. I find it absolutely fascinating to think about how much could be changed with just a small decision, such as taking a certain class or deciding what to have for lunch. Sometimes those decisions wind up working out, and other times, we end up making a choice that we regret. To position the afterlife as a place where we work out the kinks of our life to achieve perfection is uniquely appealing to me. It's an idea that I hadn't explored before, and it has found a way to stick in my mind ever since I saw this film. The Discovery has one of the most compelling endings I've seen in a long time, and while it doesn't have the buildup necessary to stand as a truly great film, it certainly goes out with a hell of a bang.
In some ways, The Discovery still feels like a missed opportunity. McDowell never manages to fully explore the twisted mental state of Dr. Harbor, nor does he solve all of the narrative threads that he establishes during the course of the relatively short film. There's a last-minute twist that feels kinda ridiculous, building on a character's resentment that I never really felt was palpable at all. In addition, I'm not sure that Jason Segel was the best choice as the lead, as his totally humorless character almost made me laugh at a few low points. But for every shortfall or miscalculation, McDowell makes up for it with another thought-provoking idea that has the potential to stick in your brain for a very long time. The Discovery is a moody, carefully calibrated experience before it takes you in a completely new direction with a twist that I simply did not see coming. It's not perfect, but don't even think about missing it- you'll want to see it, discuss it, and let it simmer in your brain for days. It's thoughtful, thoroughly engaging sci-fi, the kind of film we just don't see enough of these days.
THE FINAL GRADE: B (7.4/10)
Images courtesy of Netflix