What happens after we die? Humans have been asking the question for as long as they were capable of conceiving it. Thinkers have proposed countless possibilities. True believers have fought and killed for the supremacy of their answers. All these centuries on, there’s still no certainty, nor even the promise that there ever will be. But what if we could know? What if science could prove, definitively, that there is life after death? Not what form that life takes, or even whether it’s a happy existence or not, but simply that, when we die, the consciousness that we call “me” goes… somewhere. How would that reshape the world?
Netflix’s latest original film, The Discovery, paints a picture of such a world. Robert Redford plays Thomas Harbor, the man who has discovered just such proof. After a brief, shocking opening scene set six months into that brave new world, The Discovery then jumps ahead another couple of years. The suicide rate has skyrocketed, with millions of people choosing to end this life just so they can “get there”… wherever and whatever “there” is. Harbor is now living in seclusion, working to further his research, when he’s visited by his estranged son, Will (Jason Segel). Disdainful of the world his father’s discovery has made, Will is even more skeptical of his father’s latest research. Still, he stays because he connects with Isla (Rooney Mara), a troubled woman Will first meets on the ferry into town. As their connection grows, so does Will’s concern over Thomas’ obsessive pursuit of truths that may simply not be ours to know—at least this side of the grave.
From that crackerjack opening scene, The Discovery soon becomes an odd, Frankenstein’s monster of a film. Perhaps that’s appropriate, given that it’s about a mad scientist of sorts. The script by Justin Lader and director Charlie McDowell is wildly inconsistent in tone, veering from sci-fi mystery to hesitant romance to family melodrama to heartbreaking reflection on the nature of life, death, and regret. Perhaps that’s intentional.
That dissonant nature is actually in keeping with the themes and later revelations of the film, but in practice it’s more frustrating than revelatory. It feels very much like a half-dozen different versions of the same story have all been put through a shredder and then reassembled. If the inconsistencies are intentional, then the theory was better than the execution. If not… well, another of The Discovery’s lessons is about learning from mistakes and trying not to repeat them, so there’s always next time.
The Discovery is very much Segel and Mara’s flick. After the mandatory meet-cute, much of the story revolves around their two broken characters falling into orbit about each other. Their relationship never feels particularly romantic even as it progresses, but it would have been a mistake to try to make it such. Their connection is about two people emptied by loss, both recognizing those dark corners and neither feeling compelled or capable of fixing the other, just eager to share the burden. It might not be the stuff of love poems, but it feels appropriate for the tone of the film.
Redford, on the other hand, is unfortunately wasted here. Don’t get me wrong, he makes good use of all the material he’s given. But he’s never really given a moment to shine, at least partly because his character is, by nature, so emotionally shut down. He’s actually at his best in the very end of the opening scene, quietly playing out a dozen different thoughts after something tragic has unfolded. That moment defines the character for the rest of the film—it’s just a shame he’s never quite as interesting again as he is right then.
Kudos must also be given to a nigh-unrecognizable Jesse Plemmons (Friday Night Lights, Fargo), who plays Will’s younger brother, Toby. Shaggy, mumbling, sleepy, Plemmons is consistently entertaining as the loyal son who stayed behind with dad after Will left in the wake of personal tragedy. He might not be as theoretically dynamic a figure as his brother, but he’s sure as hell a lot more fun to watch.
However, The Discovery ultimately lives or dies on how it chooses to answer its central questions and mysteries. The answers it provides are, like the rest of the film, both messy and strangely compelling. The film rallies for a genuinely moving climax, even if the third-act reveals can’t fully overshadow the rough ride it took to get there. For a story about beginnings and endings, it’s perhaps appropriate that those are The Discovery’s two strongest sequences. Unfortunately, as Redford’s character points out, all of us spend most of our lives in the long, protracted middle. It’s just a shame the text can’t live up to the bookends.