The Discovery has the premise of a Black Mirror episode and the spiritual optimism of Chicken Soup for the Sci-Fi Nerd’s Soul. It's the not-so-distant future, and Dr. Thomas Harber (Robert Redford) has collected overwhelming scientific evidence that upon death, our brainwaves make an exodus on a subatomic level. The “soul” leaves the body. Where consciousness goes, nobody knows, but the loose thread is enough to unravel humanity, inspiring an epidemic of suicides. When life is too painful, there's always the option to take the next train out of the station.
This review contains minor spoilers.
Two years and millions of suicides after the discovery, Dr. Harber’s estranged son Will (Jason Segel) returns home, hoping to convince dad to recant his findings to save the world from systematically offing itself. Serendipitously, Will is joined by Isla (Rooney Mara), a suicidal curveball of a character prone to explicit descriptions of her depressive idiosyncrasies. Their meet-cute is an irritating extended riff on their names, conversation about how Isla looks vaguely familiar, and some other stilted small talk that will clearly mean something by the final act.
Will and Isla find Harber in a dreary mansion — formerly a summer camp for troubled youth — where the good doctor has secretly designed an experimental looking-glass into the afterlife. Barren mahogany smoking rooms are littered with retro-future hardware borrowed from the set of Alien. (How is it that this old house has enough outlets for this project?) Dr. Harber is joined by a handful of quirky, cultish recruits, including his son Toby (Jesse Plemons, with too little to do beyond a chill guitar solo) and a menacing young woman (American Honey’s Riley Keough) whose largest chunk of dialogue has her wondering aloud how long it will be before suicidal folks start volunteering other people for the afterlife. How long, indeed!
What’s the genre?
Inspirational science-fiction pseudo-romance.
What’s it about?
The film oscillates between the technical quest for insight into the afterlife and Will and Isla’s sleuthing about each other’s tragic pasts.
The former is compelling enough busywork, with Dr. Harber and his son revealing, refining, and testing a machine that they hope will provide a livestream from the afterlife. The contraption looks sort of like an MRI machine topped with a nest of wires. The patient, who wears a crown of thousand diodes, is briefly and medically killed. In theory, something then appears on a tiny black-and-white screen. Of course, it can't be that simple: the method is likely to vegetate its host.
As for Isla and Will, I won't spoil their grim backstories. The film does that well enough on its own, signposting each reveal long before it lands, making a slow film slower. Their tragedies are sad, but why they matter within the world of the film isn’t revealed until it’s far too late to care.
After a lot of emotional and metaphysical hand-writing, these two lines converge for a bizarre twist that raises profound questions of morality, all of which the filmmakers ignore for a paradoxically saccharine and morbid climax. And it undermines the film’s core question about the afterlife by allowing purgatorial wiggle-room. I am neither joking nor exaggerating when I say The Discovery shares a good deal of its metaphysical logic with the ghosts of 1995’s Casper.
Okay, what's it really about?
Regret. The film has been marketed around one question: what happens after death? But The Discovery’s real question isn’t as sexy: how do we recover from our biggest regrets?
The film perplexingly doesn’t interrogate the idea with clarity until the final minutes. The script spends more than an hour dancing around its characters’ motivations. How frustrating, then, that the big ideas are condensed to the point of meaninglessness — amended to a film when they should be the film. And what it does have to say is bizarrely both non-scientific and non-spiritual. It’s just a feel-good fantasy solution, a deus ex machina for a film that tacitly speculates whether there’s even a God.
But is it any good?
At least the art direction is fantastic. The mansion is a mash-up of the Deus Ex reboot and a 1980s Macintosh design lab. It doesn’t feel like real technology — in spite of the emphasis on bulkiness and the complexity of retro-tech, the spaces are stark and roomy — but that allows for a compelling dreaminess. I’d argue the set takes the most successful shot at the film’s ambitions.
Everything else isn’t bad so much as it’s dull. An exceptional cast does their damnedest with what they have, but the lines hang dully in the air. It’s like watching a high-school play starring a gaggle of anxious teens.
What should it be rated?
The film doesn’t have an official rating, but I’d give it a PG-13 for awkward sex, the theft of a corpse, dramatically easy gun violence, and metaphysical theory that shouldn’t be allowed to escape from AP Philosophy.
How can I actually watch it?
The film is streaming on Netflix as of March 31st, 2017.
This review originally ran on January 21st, 2017, in conjunction with the film’s release at the Sundance Film Festival. It has been republished to coincide with the film’s wide release on Netflix.