The Discovery: When Good Characters Ask Big Questions

The Discovery (2017)

Dir.: Charlie McDowell





From the time of conception up until the time we as humans experience our passing, we all attempt to make sense of the world around us and find meaning with our environment. It’s basic human nature to search for such purpose within ourselves and in our interactions with others. This theme permeates The Discovery, an independent film that finds itself at a crossroads between a Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine-inspired romance, and a more cerebral Nolan-esque sci-fi drama. While the film itself serves as a blend of these two styles, its narrative and performances are sincere enough to never feel like sheer plagiarism. Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, and Robert Redford all bring emotionally layered and solidly empathetic portrayals to their vastly different characters, and though The Discovery features a narrative premise that states there is proof of a life after death, the true discoveries of the film lie in the decisions that the characters make, as well as the motivations that drive them. Thus, the film does provide some fruit for symbolism and motif: as the characters discover more about themselves and the world’s reaction to the “Discovery,” the real revelations in the film are made on a much more personal level. It never transitions into a sci-fi epic, but The Discovery perhaps is all the better for this lack of cinematic ambition, as it provides a perfectly competent narrative with a small cast and a contained setting that nevertheless feels justified as its own potential dystopian origin story.

The Discovery tells of a scientist who discovers that there is a life after death by analyzing brain waves in terminal patients. As a result, a giant portion of the planet’s population decide to kill themselves, which the film refers to most often as “getting there.” Naturally, different characters have different reactions to the Discovery, some which are faith-based and on the spiritual side, some that are logical or skeptical. Thankfully, since this film works as a small-scale drama, the acting on display and the characters that make up the film carry even the most mundane scenes.

Unfortunately, this film exists as another case where its marketing betrays its tone: it never quite measures up to the Garland or Nolan-inspired science fiction that the trailers would make the viewer think it wants to be, simply because this is not, in fact, what this film wants to be. Its premise is quickly foregone in favor of the performances and the small-scale relationships that make up its world, but the film does not fail as a drama because of this intimate nature. Depending on how one manages his or her expectations with the film, he or she may turn out disappointed in it, for it never ponders the metaphysical questions one may have when discussing the afterlife as our aforementioned influences may have. The characters never provide a thorough explanation for what the Discovery entails, or how Redford’s character came about it--that's not what The Discovery is trying to do.

The entire cast bring their A-game to this production, but Jason Segel shows particularly impressive dramatic chops in this film. This is not his first dramatic venture-–he brilliantly portrayed eccentric post-modern author David Foster Wallace in the criminally overlooked The End of the Tour–-but here he brings a solemn, incredibly empathetic man to the forefront of a conflict that allows his character’s sense of compassion to shine. Rooney Mara plays a more reserved role, and though she at first comes off as a manic, pixie dream girl, as the film reveals more and more about her, she turns out to have some well-justified baggage of her own. Redford plays the villain of the film, but his veteran pedigree allows him to show a side of his character that would most likely be much more difficult to bring to life under the hands of a less capable actor. There are some other supporting performances from familiar faces whose appearances I won’t spoil, as they have not generally been shown in trailers, but this film works as a showcase for its three leads, with Segel in particular proving that he has potential to grow as a dramatic actor. Even through some crazy narrative leaps of faith, these actors anchor the viewer’s interest well enough that the plot holes and ill-addressed moral and ethical conundrums fall by the wayside.

The cinematography does a good job of displaying the tension that the characters face on a daily basis, with set design playing a key role. The usage of strategically placed lighting and camera angles bring grand stakes to even the most basic of conversations. These scenes never rise to Sorkin levels of neo-Shakespearean verbal waltzing, but they provide an adequate sense of pacing and character motivation to scenes that could have been otherwise bland. The film does succumb to its own ambitions slightly in the final twenty minutes, as the final reveals seem a little bit too convenient for the rest of the film’s refusal to let consequences slide, but the scenes on display are at least technically interesting, with some sequences that recall some of the potential the premise could have had. Its surrealism is to be commended, but not at the level that it wants to be rewarded for. The score uses some ethereal, lightly textured melodies to add mood to the scenes sparingly; the soundtrack is competent, but nothing special. Director Charlie McDowell shows adequate restraint, but I believe his previous film, The One I Love, to be the better directed film, as its premise is more well kept and it feels more consistent in its pacing. Nevertheless, I did enjoy my time with The Discovery enough to recommend it on a technical level and for its performances.

After the film concluded, I began to think a whole lot about it, for better or for worse. The Discovery is the kind of film that needs to properly marinate for one to fathom all its subtle hints at something greater, even if the film itself doesn’t reach or address all these ambitions with equal confidence. It’s easy to recommend this film for fans of the kinds of directors and writers I’ve mentioned previously, especially since it’s a Netflix original and can be streamed at any time. I would simply suggest that your expectations be put in check going in, as it’s not a truly bad film, but neither is it worth the kind of indie-darling acclaim that it wants. In an increasingly crowded landscape of small scale independent sci-fi dramas, The Discovery succeeds in delivering an emotional core and integral performances that prove to overcome its more basic narrative failings. It’s not the wildest ride, but it’s a ride worth experiencing all the same.