The Discovery (2017)
“The Discovery” is a film which had its first premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 2017, but, arguably, it deserves more attention than it eventually got. Here, Will (Jason Segel) and Isla (Rooney Mara) meet in the strangest of times. It has been scientifically proven that the afterlife does exist, and this fact alone spiralled millions of suicides around the world, with people almost desperate to “get to the other side”. The scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) is behind the new discovery, and he has another trick up his sleeve: he thinks he can also show what the afterlife looks like before people take their lives. After all, who would not want to look at a holiday brochure before committing to their holiday destination? Although the film’s narrative slops and the chemistry between Segel and Mara is lukewarm, the film is atmospheric, raises some fascinating issues, and has a strong ending.
The movie always reminds the audience that its characters live in the world where the afterlife is proven to exist. Here, it is not simply the recycling of the premise of “Flatliners” (2017), where teenagers just have to experience such a state. “The Discovery” deals with the whole aftermath of this discovery of the afterlife, and poses anew the question of the meaning of life and death. It is nice that the movie also mentions the implications that the discovery could have on a murder as an offence. If people do not value their lives anymore (since the afterlife exists) they may also be careless with other people’s lives, and this means people who kill others may simply say that they tried to “re-locate” them. “The Discovery” has quite a bag of mysteries to unveil in that respect, and if it does not wholly open up to its premise, it suggests a lot of possibilities to make one think.
Surprisingly, despite such a morbidly fascinating subject to explore, the narrative soon runs dry. Half-way through the film, there is little excitement, even though the film tries every trick, from a detective story to corpse-snatching sequences. The problem may be the dragging conversations on what could have happened to Will’s mother and on whether animals also have the afterlife. These topics form the same conversation in the film, as though the movie does not want to lose a thread of both its science-fiction aspect and of its emotional/private side, so it maintains both, and is unsure which one the audience would prefer.
However, despite the fact that it becomes tedious to watch how past personal traumas are uncovered in the film, the film’s gloomy setting just about makes up for it. The production chose to shoot near the beach and the sea, with open spaces nearby. This is a brave decision, which has paid off. The muddy waters and the grey skies all signal hopelessness and despair in the film, but open spaces also suggest that such hopelessness is on a global scale. The melancholy colours are exactly what is needed here, and Charlie McDowell, the director, relied for his visual inspiration on the film “The Master” (2012). The result is good. Even though the film may not reach the heights of the absurdist world created by Yorgos Lanthimos in his movies, there are “mechanical” actions and unnatural dialogue sequences present here to just about induce the sense of irony and the feeling of an apocalypse looming.
“The Discovery” is also supposed to be a film about two people finding connection in the midst of a global crisis, but the chemistry between Mara and Segel leaves much to be desired. Perhaps, the problem lies with Segel’s casting. He plays Will, a neurologist, and, although it is refreshing to see someone relatively new (no Gosling or Affleck), Segel still somehow cuts an odd figure in the film. Rooney Mara (“Side Effects” (2013), “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013)) is more of a predictable cast since at the time she happened to be the partner of the director, Charlie McDowell. Undoubtedly, the compensation for any miscasts here is Robert Redford in the role of a scientist who proved the existence of the afterlife, and who then became a charismatic leader of a small cult at his home. Redford has a magnetic screen presence here, projecting confidence and enthusiasm, and steals every scene he is in. At 81 years of age, Robert Redford is still that one person who can make a film engrossing or keep it afloat. In fact, part of the appeal of “The Discovery” is the mystery and the intrigue behind Robert Redford’s film character.
The first five minutes of the film are impressive, but it is the last fifteen minutes which are quite memorable. In fact, the last fifteen minutes of the film are exactly what this film should have been all about all along. In its conclusion, “The Discovery” raises its game, introducing “Inception” (2010)-like intelligence, an emotional twirl and thought-provoking elements. It starts to suggest and imply a different way of looking at all the events already happened in the film. It is like the film becomes this clever, melancholy-inducing, understated gem.
“The Discovery” may have the misfortune of being monotonous and underwhelming, especially half-way through, and the chemistry between Segel and Mara is virtually non-existent, but there are other good things to observe here. It helps if you regard “The Discovery” as a peculiar, low-key movie, and concentrate on Redford’s screen-presence and the ending. And, if you add to this an eerie atmosphere, and the fact that the film raises tons of fascinating philosophical issues/implications regarding death/suicide, then “The Discovery” becomes a good film. Perhaps, this is an odd instance where the sum of the film’s parts is more compelling that the film itself. 7/10