The Discovery is the kind of film where Jason Segel wears a black trench coat on a moodily overcast day and walks into an empty ferry, where a TV newscast helpfully lays out some exposition. It’s the kind of movie where the only other passenger is Rooney Mara, who has platinum-bleached hair and is troubled, in a cute way. They have some mildly flirtatious dialogue and she quickly engages him in a conversation about reality versus fantasy. When they part, she sassily points out that they’ll never have to see each other again, which means of course, they will.
As the newscast has elucidated for us, it’s been two years since scientific proof of an afterlife has been found — the “discovery” of the film’s title. The nature of that afterlife is still uncertain, but in the meantime the hot new trend is killing yourself to “get there.” Rooney Mara’s character, Isla, is one such person. Her suicide attempt affords Jason Segal’s Will an opportunity to save her (and ends up being an even more heroic act than it appears to be, in the ultimate save-a-troubled-woman fantasy), and her life having been unintentionally prolonged, Isla agrees to go with Will to his dad’s place. It turns out his dad is Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), the guy who discovered the Discovery in the first place, and who has now enlisted a jumpsuit-wearing cult to help him figure out where our souls are floating off to. Even though nobody seems to particularly like Thomas, including Will’s brother Toby (Jesse Plemons), they all dutifully help out.
Most of the people in Harbor’s house are either formerly suicidal or have lost people to suicide. The Discovery is a movie that uses the idea of suicide — many, many suicides — as a set dressing, without ever taking a moment to engage with it at ground level. Tickers on the ferry and in a morgue count the number of lives lost and urge citizens to “stay in this life.” Is there some other dysfunction in this presumed near-future that’s so oppressive that the faintest shred of evidence would immediately send such a huge number of the living shuffling off this mortal coil? That’s an interesting sci-fi hypothesis, but it’s never dramatically proven, and mass suicide as a concept just pops out like bare breasts in the opening minutes of a Skinemax feature, something we’re meant to just accept as a stylistic given.
This can’t help but come off as immature, and the work of a writer with limited psychological understanding, and not much else in The Discovery works to contradict that. This is peak TV in a feature-film package, a faux-deep, workmanlike script splashed with some strikingly moody sci-fi imagery tailor-made for a YouTube trailer. It aspires to eerie and constantly ends up at belabored and literal — exposition is given via newscasts and interviews, and character development through questionnaires. It’s the gum you like — whether that’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Children of Men, Flatliners, or even more recent fare such as The Master or The Leftovers or even Netflix’s own The OA — now sugar-free and back in style.
Speaking of Eternal Sunshine, this is the second film by writer-director Charlie McDowell to draw Charlie Kaufmann comparisons, after his 2014 debut The One I Love. Like Kaufman, McDowell can’t help but use romantic relationships and infatuation as the test tube for his loopy premises, but the similarities end there. He seems more enamored with the trappings of Sundance-approved sci-fi than the actual human underpinnings that make such works effective. The Discovery is an empty shell that knows exactly the type of thinking-man viewer it wants to impress (and I emphasize man — the most fully formed female character here is Rooney Mara’s forehead vein). And I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix already has a dozen more of them ready to crank out over the next two years.