A Romantic Speculation About Life, After-Life, and Purpose
American filmmaker Charlie McDowell presents an interesting premise with the 2017 Netflix-distributed science fiction feature The Discovery. Regardless of the harsh reviews within the industry, this Jason Segel-starring vehicle is not as bad as advertised. Trial By Films will get into this more in the future, but based on recent Netflix feature distributions and their respectively tough critiques, we are starting to question the authenticity of the reviews, and perhaps the overall negative sentiment among critics is an overall aversion to Netflix’s radical takeover of the film industry.
In the not-too-distance future, famed scientist Thomas Harbor (played by Robert Redford) has scientifically proven the existence of an afterlife; but that world-changing discovery has resulted in an unforeseen consequence – an exponential rise in the suicide rate the world over. People believe that their earthly life is only a transitional time before an inevitable heavenly existence – so why not get ‘there’ sooner. We see this new world through the eyes of Will Harbor (Jason Segel), Thomas’ son, who is dealing with the consequential shame and responsibility of helping his father make ‘the discovery’ that has resulted in so many avoidable deaths. While the Harbors have proven there is ‘something’ after life, Will is much less certain of what that ‘something’ is – and if it is even better than where we are now.
Filmed in Newport, Rhode Island; director Charlie McDowell and his cinematography Sturla Brandth Grovlen focus their camera on a dilapidated hospital that Thomas Harbor has turned into a mix of personal laboratory and cult commune for his ‘ scientific team’ set against the cold, windy, gray-skied New England vista of Rhode Island. If this barren patch of land pushed up against the edge of the jagged ocean waves is all we have to look forward to for the rest of forever – why not see what that ‘something’ else has to offer. At least that is what we think McDowell is suggesting.
Segel’s Will Harbor has come home to Rhode Island on the two year anniversary of his father’s discovery; perhaps hoping to talk his father into announcing it was all a hoax as a way to stop the mounting suicides. Segel is no Marshall from How I Met Your Mother here, but instead shows a range of subtle emotional acting cues; nuances that reflect the contemplative tone of this film.
Rounding out the Harbor family is Jesse Plemons as Will’s brother Toby – the younger, disheveled, simple brother whose devotion to his father and his father’s new scientific aspirations has risen him up the ranks to favorite. That is until the prodigal son Will returns home. Thomas sees Will’s return as a chance to get that next breakthrough he needs in his experiments. Thomas is searching for proof of ‘what’ the afterlife is, to perhaps lose the negative association that has followed him ever since his original disclosure of an afterlife.
In the role of Toby, Jesse Plemons as usual shows he is an actor about as good as you can get today in Hollywood. Nuanced and enigmatic, Plemons provides depth to his character that elevates his secondary role throughout. Have you ever seen Jesse Plemons not knock a role out of the park? Because we haven’t. Robert Redford is unapologetic in his performance as Thomas Harbor. While deaths have piled up over the last two years, Thomas stands defiant that his discovery is something that was right to share with the world and that he bears no responsibility for the those deaths. This curious threesome of Will, Toby, and Thomas Harbor show the various ways in which they have dealt with the fallout of the titular ‘discovery’ – through guilt, admiration, and defiance respectively.
On his way to his father’s secluded compound, Will makes friends on the ferry with Rooney Mara’s Isla. Isla is argumentative and challenging; but Segel’s Will doesn’t seem to take offense, instead engaging her on philosophical ideas of life and death and afterlife. After a failed suicide attempt, Isla joins the Harbor commune; where together she and Will work their way towards a new discovery that could explain or explain away his father’s earth-shattering claims from 2 years prior.
The plot eventually moves towards finding out what, if anything, the supposed afterlife actually is. While a story as open-ended, and potentially divisive, as this story is; McDowell writes in a solid ending to The Discovery. There is no answer that will please everyone, but the inclusion of the premise of a specific ‘purpose’ for each person’s life provides proper closure for McDowell’s characters.
- Cinematography: 9/10 – An excellently filmed picture cast in clouds and gray skies gives the overcast feeling this story deserves.
- Acting: 9/10 – Strong performances from the entire cast – led by Jason Segel and Rooney Mara.
- Screenwriting: 7/10 – This one will not work for all viewers, and the ending might not have the resolution audiences typically expect, but the premise, set-up, and follow-through are all very interesting to think through.
- Directing: 7/10 – McDowell may lose some by the end with an imperfect third act.
8/10 – Much better put together than most reviews claim, writer/director Charlie McDowell pairs an intriguing premise about life and afterlife with strong on-screen performances and striking locations and filming. Unfortunately, The Discovery’s open-ended premise and ambiguous third act/resolution keep McDowell from hitting a home run with his newest feature.