Premises rarely come more intriguing than that of Netflix’s The Discovery. Robert Redford plays Thomas Harbour, a scientist who discovers that there is an afterlife. He has managed to track a signal leaving the human body in death, travelling somewhere else. The news has devastating consequences. Mass numbers begin committing suicide, believing that they have a second chance at life – referring to it ominously as “getting there”. Yet, although Thomas knows life continues on in death, he doesn’t know what’s next.
The bulk of the drama focuses upon Thomas’ son Will (Jason Segel), a urologist and sceptic disturbed by the effect his father has had on the world. Upon learning from his brother (Jesse Plemons) that their dad and his cult-like group (featuring Riley Keough and Ron Canada) are planning a mysterious new experiment, he returns home to the sleepy island on which Thomas resides. Travelling there, Will meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a suicidal woman – someone with whom he shares an immediate connection.
The Discovery rather neatly builds upon writer-director Charlie McDowell’s debut film – The One I Love. Both, with their intriguing sci-fi premises and bottle settings, feel like extended episodes of The Twilight Zone (not a bad thing). Yet, while his first feature was a small intimate two-hander, his latest feels far bigger in scope. Here, he and co-screenwriter Justin Lader create a fascinating world filled with little eccentricities, probing how such a huge event would fundamentally change humanity. Without a definitive end to life in death, people’s lives lose purpose. The two writers mine some thought provoking but melancholic humour from this with Segel’s character early on stating: “I had a patient, really young. Found out she had brain cancer … She reacted to that diagnosis like I had handed her a fucking winning lottery ticket”. Another scene in a morgue depicts a disturbing casual and insensitive mortuary worker – too used to death and tired of being forced to do the “work of five”.
Ultimately, this world of the film is more engaging than the plot which unfolds. The Discovery in its early passages builds intrigue with the mystery element of what Thomas and his cult are hoping to accomplish. However, the more the film reveals to the audience, the more it contorts itself uncomfortably in twists, while also growing increasingly derivative of similar in plot mind-benders like Source Code or Vanilla Sky, particularly in its final moments.
Thankfully McDowell knows how to cast a movie that even when his drama loses some of its freshness in its latter half, the performers sell the material. Between this and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s been great to see Redford pushing his “nice-guy” image into darker territories. Although not necessarily the villain of The Discovery, he is its darkest character. A scene where he punishes Riley Keough’s cult member (also, typically brilliant work from the American Honey actress), keeping up his air of geniality as he persecutes her in front of the other cultists is genuinely creepy.
Also, excellent are Mara and Segel who manage the difficult task of making the viewer believe in their incredibly swiftly moving relationship. One buys that they are two very damaged people drawn together in an extreme environment. Segel, in particular, shines – adding to his increasingly impressive resume following his great take on David Foster Wallace in End of the Tour. He is an actor who has been quietly adding soul to the characters he’s played in comedies for the past decade. His quiet and sad performance here embodies The Discovery at its best. When the movie focuses on the gloomy interactions and emotions between people in this near-future, it soars. As it gets caught up in plot-mechanics, it becomes flawed.
The Discovery is available on Netflix right now.
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