Director: Charlie McDowell
Starring: Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Riley Keough, Jesse Plemons
“Reality and fantasy are mutually exclusive. They don’t exist in the same space”
There’s your premise, thanks, Mr. Segel.
The Discovery offers a (…cinematic) glimpse at what lies after death. What is the afterlife and where do we go? How would the world react to such a revelation? Heavy stuff from Charlie McDowell, who has assembled a very talented cast to bring his vision to the screen, and the gloomy palette that drapes over every shot partners well with the subject matter and overall tone.
Annoyingly, it succumbs to what I now copyright as Netflix Syndrome – it’s just missing that something to lift the story up a notch.
On a live television interview, the man behind the Discovery of what lies beyond, Thomas Harbor (Redford), refuses to accept responsibility for the millions of suicides that have plagued the world since his Discovery was accepted as reality. Sadly for him, the interview is cut short by a crew member blowing his own brains out to reach the ether. Two years later, Harbor’s son Will (Segel) meets a somehow familiar-looking, reclusive blonde, Isla (Mara) on a ferry where they debate the ethics and ideologies of the Discovery before going their separate ways.
Along with his brother Toby (Plemons), Will visits his father’s mansion where he is putting into place new technology that will record what the deceased see in their afterlife. Cool. Everyone at the mansion wears jumpsuits and is subservient to Thomas, including suicide-survivor Lacey (Keough) – all of which is cultish and plain weird. When Will returns to a beach that haunts his dreams, he sees Isla loading up with rocks and walking into the sea with one thing on her mind – sayonara world. She is saved by Will and taken to the mansion, where the research starts to intensify and deep truths come to the forefront.
Charlie McDowell had the fun task of directing girlfriend, Rooney Mara, and mother, Mary Steenburgen, during The Discovery. There’s nothing to add to that, just a fun fact.
The movie itself is a completely serviceable product that asks many questions - but also leaves them unanswered – and poses an interesting proposition that will probably never be answered in reality. As mentioned, it does suffer from Netflix Syndrome - as it rolls through the runtime, you wait for something to happen that will elevate the narrative but it just doesn’t come (see You Get Me, Rememory , Before I Fall etc.) leaving a slightly deflated feeling. It’s not that The Discovery isn’t a good movie, it just doesn’t deviate from its projected path. This is a sci-fi/romance movie that isn’t bogged down by effects or particularly heavy scientific jargon – in fact, the inner-workings of the Discovery are never really fleshed out. It focuses more on the premise rather than the people or machinations, which is partly a shame as maybe that’s what was needed to lift the story up.
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen does a fine job with the cinematography. Meditative wide shots of lonely beaches and framed shots with suicide counters vie for attention throughout. The washed out visuals compliment the story nicely and the scenes of contemplative silence fit the tone set out from the beginning. The empty scenes – the ferry, car parks etc. – have a poignancy as the effects of mass suicides are depicted in this way. Unfortunately, some of the dialogue doesn’t hit - there’s some sharp lines sprinkled in and some subtle humour too – but at times, it could be quite stilted when characters attempted normal conversation and at times, there was no context to their exchanges, making them feel shoehorned in. The romance itself felt…a bit odd? Maybe its tall Segel matched with small Mara, or that I could never see them together in a million years, but something was off slightly. I enjoyed their scenes together (some clunky dialogue aside…) and they, along with Plemons, gave us the movies one real scene of levity in a morgue (Yep, in a morgue)
Segel and Redford perform admirably, in fact, I believe Redford gives his best performance for a good few years here and it’s good to see Segel in more dramatic roles (following his great turn in The End of the Tour). It would be nice to see Rooney Mara have some fun once in a while in her roles, but she is dependably solid here.
The end of The Discovery will divide viewers. Some may find it clever and a fulfilling answer, others will find it exasperating or bewildering. I fell into the latter category, I didn’t believe the conclusion was a satisfying way to wrap up the plot, it’s a well-trodden way out that, whilst not conventionally terrible, just feels unearned.
The Discovery has a good premise and good performances throughout, it just lacked the spark required to make it all very good.
September 25th 2017