I’m reluctant to label The Discovery as science fiction, even though Netflix’s new drama has what sounds like a classic Isaac Asimov premise: a scientist has found irrefutable evidence that after death, the human spirit goes somewhere; he’s just not sure where. Like good science fiction, the film raises a handful of questions that could span seasons of television — Can science really prove something like this? Should it? — but the 110-minute film largely ignores those questions in favor of melodramatic twists. For a film about science finding answers to life’s big questions, The Discovery is surprisingly uninterested in how and why we learn the answers.
Rather than get bogged down in philosophical conversations, The Discovery focuses on the domestic toll of its scientific progress. Jason Segel plays Will, the estranged son of Dr. Harbor (Robert Redford), the man who made the scientific breakthrough. When Dr. Harbor’s findings were made public, a global epidemic of suicides followed. Feeling an acute responsibility for the millions of deaths, Will returns to his father in hopes of convincing him to recant his life’s work. But Dr. Harbor, in pursuit of knowledge above all else, intends to go forward rather than backward.
Major spoilers for plot reveals and the ending of The Discovery ahead.
The film, set in and around a gloomy mansion-turned-research-facility, builds to Harbor, Will, and the audience seeing for themselves what the afterlife actually is. Obviously everybody, viewers included, wants to know the answer, but the film isn’t prepared to deliver one in any satisfying fashion. The afterlife exists exclusively as a means to a narrative end, a tool to progress Will’s personal growth.
The Discovery is, in short, like the worst parts of Lost condensed to a feature film. Lost was at its best when drawing from an internal debate that was, like the philosophical engine powering the The Discovery, difficult to summarize and impossible to entirely unpack. “Is it better,” Lost asked, “to tackle life’s big questions with rigorous science, or unflinching faith?” The existential tug-of-war, played out most clearly in the relationship between Man of Science Jack and Man of Faith Locke, lasted 121 episodes. Lost was imperfect. It was overstuffed with metaphysics, fan service, and sudden random polar bears, and the show struggled most when it tried to answer the big questions of existence with truisms about good and evil, love and hate.
But time and again, Lost argued with itself, not merely about the mysteries of the universe, but the tools that guide us through it. Can science prove the assumptions of faith? Can faith answer questions science cannot? Are science and faith truly so different in their existential goals? This was network TV!
The Discovery, a film about the science of the afterlife, should at least be superficially concerned with science, faith, and the friction between them. Is there a God? What about heaven? Or hell? But The Discovery never aspires to be challenging, at least not beyond its Children of Men-like fascination with an apocalypse happening in slow motion. Science in The Discovery is like a deus ex machina on steroids, serving whatever purpose the plot needs it to. It gives people things to do while they reveal their personal dramas to each other. And so the work of a scientist is more like a series of fetch-quests. To test the afterlife machine, they need a body, so Will and Isla (Rooney Mara) steal a corpse (and open up to one another). When that doesn’t work, Dr. Harbor volunteers (and has a difficult conversation with his son). Then Will gives it a go (and discovers the truth about himself).
Rather than digging into the moral, ethical, scientific, or philosophical questions of these decisions or this contraption, the film mostly focuses on Will, who is about as curious as a bag of a sawdust.
And maybe all of that would be fine, if this were a film about faith. Lost’s finale was largely panned when it aired, but at least the episode committed to resolving the core’s big debate. The Man of Science and the Man of Faith reunite in a space disconnected from time, and along with the other characters, take a step into the glow of the afterlife. A show about, in part, the need of scientists to answer the questions of time and space, ends on a note that embraces the beauty and serenity of the unknowable.
But The Discovery is practically antagonistic to the notion of faith, let alone resting in peace. The afterlife, it suggests, consists of countless dimensions in which every individual relives their biggest regret over and over until they fix it. Take for example, Will’s father, Dr. Harbor, who became so obsessed with his early research on the afterlife that he ignored his wife until she killed herself. But in the afterlife, Dr. Harbor can fix the relationship by going upstairs to see his wife in the nick of time. Yes, that’s as vapid as it sounds.
And yet Will’s turn is worse. When Will tests the machine, we discover that the entire movie has been set in his afterlife. In fact, Will has lived countless versions of this afterlife, trying again and again to repair it. His goal has been to save Isla, who in another lifetime was just a stranger he briefly met on a ferry, and went on to drown herself. Will has lived life after life with just the faintest sense that he must save her. And presumably every human is doing something similar.
The film plays this as if it’s touching, like some unholy mishmash of The Twilight Zone and Chicken Soup for the Soul. But it’s neither as intellectually fascinating as the former or emotionally soothing as the latter. Its afterlife, painted as an opportunity, is actually a Sisyphean hell. It’s also bizarre on the top, most obvious level. Will’s father made the discovery that led to millions of suicides, and we’re supposed to believe Will’s biggest regret is not saving a woman with whom he shared a short ferry ride?
I’m left wondering what The Discovery is. Is it science fiction with no interest in science? Is it a spiritual romance with a perverse misunderstanding of faith and love? Or is it a movie that wanted to be all of the above, and in the end wound up being nothing? Perhaps what’s most frustrating about The Discovery is that its 110 minutes can be better spent with a story that is doing similar things, just with a sense of grace and skill the film is lacking.
HBO’s The Leftovers, which premieres its third and final season this month, and which shares one of Lost’s creators in Damon Lindelof, tells the story of humans left on Earth when a small percentage of the population seems to have been raptured. It begins as a stunning mediation on grief, and spirals into a weird, funny, cosmically bizarre exploration of the unknowable. Lindelof seems to have learned from Lost, as Leftovers isn’t so caught up in narrative contortions that it chokes itself to death, nor is it concerned with scientific justification.
Every element of The Leftovers — plot, setting, characters — serves its larger questions about existence, not the other way around. And that’s a crucial lesson that stands in relief alongside The Discovery. Good science fiction — or simply good genre fiction — uses its components to say something about the world and its people. It explores where we’ve been, where we are, or where we’re going. The Discovery isn’t a movie about science or faith, or even about humans. Instead, every element merely serves the story of a man chasing a woman through a dreary, infinite loop.