The course of human history has often turned on disagreements over what exactly happens when we die. Wars have been waged, borders redrawn, votes cast, all because of a belief that is by its very definition unconfirmable. But what would you do if science could confirm that an afterlife exists, though not what form it would take? Would you start or stop attending church? Would you indulge in earthly vices, or go teetotal? Or would you – as Charlie McDowell's new film, The Discovery, would have us believe – go put a bullet in your brain in an effort to "get there"?
In The Discovery, a metaphysical science fiction romance that premiered at Sundance before being picked up for distribution through Netflix, neurologist Dr. Thomas Harber (Robert Redford) has proven without a doubt that an afterlife exists (the titular discovery). This has the unintended consequence of inspiring millions of people to commit suicide in a wide variety of ways just to see what's on the other side. His adult son, Will (Jason Segel), also a neuroscientist, isn't on the "grass is always greener" team, though. Will harbors no small amount of resentment for his father after his mother was driven to suicide years earlier by the absent workaholic. But he has come to visit his father on a secluded northeastern island anyway once he hears that Dr. Harber is working on yet another discovery. There, he rescues a troubled young woman, Isla (Rooney Mara), from drowning herself, and then brings her to his father's mad scientist-worthy compound, complete with a cult-like cadre of lost souls.
If you're under the impression that this premise borders on the too-bleak, you're not alone. Director McDowell and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen infuse nearly every scene with the color palette and mood of the first half of a commercial for antidepressants, giving the impression that the world at large is suffering from an extended bout with depression. Segel captures this mood well, playing up the sadness behind his usual jokey persona, a trait we've seen him pull off before in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and some of the more poignant moments of How I Met Your Mother. But overall, Segel seems uncomfortable without any comedic outlet to relieve the emotional devestation that pervades the film, and this hurts the core romance plot with Mara.
McDowell's first film, The One I Love, also used a low-budget science fiction premise to tell a story about modern relationships. But the chemistry between Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss while depicting the turn-on-a-dime ups and downs of that relationship was the main focus of the film. In The Discovery, however, the relationship between Segel and Mara's characters takes a back seat for too long to cerebral conversations about past trauma, ethics and death. When couplehood begins to rear its head between the two, it feels forced – like it's happening because it's expected of them, not because of any believable attraction on either of their parts.
Thankfully, solid performances from Redford, along with Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights) as Will's brother and Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road) as a devotee of Dr. Harber, save the film from being solely about the downer of a romance between Will and Isla. The answer to the core question about what actually happens in the afterlife that Dr. Harber has discovered reinforces themes of regret and atonement, though whether or not the audience finds it sweet or saccharine will certainly depend on what prejudices they began the film with.
Charlie McDowell has shown himself to be a young director with a good sense of what makes for good science fiction: namely, keeping the human element the main focus of the story rather than the bells and whistles. But while The One I Love felt like what would happen if Black Mirror decided to take on a romcom, The Discovery feels more like an overly bleak episode of Touched by an Angel.