PARK CITY – Is there life after death? It’s a question that’s been a recurring theme in both the written word and visual arts for as long as man has walked he earth. What is rarely considered, however, is how the world would react if definitive proof of some sort of afterlife was found. That’s the initial and, frankly, most interesting conceit of Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery” which debuted Friday night at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
The picture begins with a television interview between Thomas Harbour (Robert Redford) and a TV interviewer (an un-credited Mary Steenburgen) about the former’s jaw-dropping revelation that has changed the world. It seems Harbour has scientifically proven that when someone dies there is a tangible aspect of their consciousness that leaves the body and travels to a different dimension (or somewhere unknown). In the six months since his “discovery” was revealed publicly over 2 million people have committed suicide hoping that death will finally take them to a better life. Instead of a relief that there is something on the other side once they die people are using the news as an excuse to end their existence prematurely. After staying radio silent, Harbour agreed to the interview in hopes of stopping the suicide exodus, but as a demonstration of how far and wide his revelation has been interpreted one of the news organization’s crew members interrupts the interview thanking him before taking his own life on the air.
It’s all downhill from there.
A year later we meet Will (an unfortunately dour Jason Segel) who is traveling on an almost empty ferry to an unnamed island. The only other passenger appears to be Isla (Rooney Mara doing her Rooney Mara thing) and they have an ethical debate about the mass suicides and, of course, the meaning of the “discovery.” Will, we soon learn is actually Harbour’s son, a neurosurgeon who stopped working with his father because of an incident involving his now departed mother. He’s traveled to visit his dad’s new home, a former summer retreat that looks like a creepy doppelganger for Wayne Manor. Harbour now uses the facility to continue his research and house 50 or so suicide survivors he is caring for with this assistance of his other son, Toby (a less memorable than usual Jesse Plemons). It all feels a bit cultish (the fact they wear jumpsuits is a bit theatrical) and Will realizes his father’s real motivation is to see if he can chronicle what they experience when they “die” for a few minutes on the other side.
On a random visit to the seashore Will stops Isla from killing herself by drowning in the ocean. In a snap Isla becomes part of the group of survivors at Harbour’s facility (perhaps a bit too quickly) and Will is torn between trying to further his dad’s research or convince him to tell the world the discovery is a hoax in order to stop the continuing suicides. Things become more complicated when Harbour shares his latest creation, a machine that will record the conscious wherever it’s going.
From that point the film pivots to using one of those recordings to determine what the other side is and whether it’s worth revealing to the world. And, then there is another twist that only complicates matters tugging the film in yet a third narrative direction. McDowell and co-screenwriter Jared Lader somehow overcomplicate matters and increasingly make the overall film less interesting at the same time. The fact Segel and Mara have little onscreen romantic chemistry – a key plot point – is also pointedly problematic.
One of the film’s other inherent problems is it feels like a composite of other movies or television programs we’ve seen over the last decade. For instance, the cult at Harbour’s mansion seems way to similar to “The Leftovers” and putting people under to try and record their near-death experiences is right out of “The OA,” a Netflix series that debuted in December (even if the filmmakers were unaware of the latter why the company would release two projects that are so similar within a few months of each other is bizarre). Even the ‘70s Sc-Fi inspired production design feels more tired than nostalgic.
Unlike McDowell and Lader’s underrated 2014 comedic thriller “The One I Love” the most disappointing aspect of “The Discovery” is that it’s something of a bore. And when you find out what “The Discovery” really is you simply don’t care anymore. [C]
“The Discovery” debuts March 31 in theaters and on Netflix.