'The Discovery': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Intriguing but unsatisfying.

Robert Redford, Rooney Mara and Jason Segel star in Charlie McDowell's character-driven sci-fi revolving around the question of whether or not there is an afterlife.

The Discovery has a most arresting opening, one in which an eminent scientist announces the existence of “a new plane of existence” or, more traditionally put, an afterlife. Choosing to believe his conviction, far too many people begin committing suicide to hasten their voyage to this other realm. Now what should the world do?

Unfortunately, after its fine start, this brainy slice of provocative speculative fiction slowly but surely loosens its grip on audience involvement rather than increases it. A fine cast and a promotable premise that brings metaphysics to the masses will help Netflix launch this on big and small screens beginning March 31, but a growing number of perplexities will afflict viewers through the second half, resulting in a decidedly mixed report card.

McDowell’s first feature, The One I Love, which debuted at Sundance in 2014 and was written by the director’s present collaborator Justin Lader, had something of the same problem in being an impressively presented piece, recognizably located in the real world and populated by real people, but veering off into territory not so easy to digest and accept. It wasn’t surprising that, after a strong Sundance reception, the film never made a dent or a cent.  

The Discovery will fare better, if only because its central premise crosses over into terrain that is traditionally the province of religion but is here claimed by the celebrated physicist Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford). Harbor’s absolute conviction that there is some kind of life after death is undercut by suicides that run into the millions, spurring Harbor to push his research further using himself as the subject. Redford’s work in the opening scene, in which he addresses his breakthrough and its consequences, is one of the strongest things he’s ever done onscreen.

Two disturbed people find themselves the only passengers on a ferry to the remote location where Harbor lives and works in an enormous Old World-style pile. Having fallen out with his father long ago, the wary and chronically morose neurologist Will (Jason Segel) feels compelled to finally return in an attempt to clarify things with his difficult dad. The other voyager, Isla (a blonde-tressed Rooney Mara), betrays a compulsive mysteriousness and takes snaky pleasure in insulting the sad-sack fellow she’s stuck with for a while.

Harbor has surrounded himself with acolytes, the primary one being his other son Toby (Jesse Plemons), a long-haired hippie dude who helps his father prepare for his own brain trip, which he hopes might take him to the other side and back. The rest of the student body, if such it is, consist of pliant, undemonstrative cultists who are not there to question any of what goes on at the compound, first and foremost their own unrewarded servitude.

As Harbor prepares for his “voyage,” Isla, whose true motives remain hidden, begins toying with the befuddled Will, first in small gestures, then in ways that could rightly be construed as amorous. That Mara and Segel are so oddly matched physically — he looks fully twice as big as she does when they stand by one another — lends odd humor to their often uncomfortable interchanges.

But the low-key touches, visual elegance (courtesy of Sturla Brandth Grovien’s icy camerawork) and persistent interest in what Harbor is up to are increasingly strained by the attenuated storytelling and a gnawing sense that nothing the filmmakers can come up with would somehow satisfactorily address the grandness of Harbor’s vision or the proper fates of the main characters. The film slows when it should gradually accelerate and reduces the import of what it’s been dancing around by delivering an unconvincing resolution to its numerous issues. What promised to keep becoming more instead becomes less.

The actors, along with the key behind-the-scenes players, keep it interesting until it simply isn’t so much anymore.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Opens: March 31 (Netflix)

Production: A-Lo Films

With: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough, Ron Canada

Director: Charlie McDowell

Screenwriters: Charlie McDowell, Justin Lader

Producers: Alex Orlovsky, James D. Stern

Executive producers: Julie Goldstein, Lucas Smith, Mike Goodridge, Dimitra Tsingou, Hunter Gray, Charlie McDowell, Ian Bricke, Matt Levin

Director of photography: Sturla Brandth Grovien

Production designer: Akin McKenzie

Costume designer: Keri Langerman

Editor: Jennifer Lilly

Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

Casting: Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels

101 minutes