The Discovery is a 2017 Netflix production written by Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader (The One I Love) and directed by Charlie McDowell. Starring Robert Redford, Rooney Mara and Jason Segal, The Discovery considers what might happen if people knew for sure there was life after death. I’ve enjoyed many of Netflix’s productions. Unfortunately, The Discovery was not one of them.
Is there life after death? The Discovery leaves you with more questions than answers.
Robert Redford plays Thomas, a scientist who proves that there is life after death. What is the proof? We’re never given specifics, but the world reacts with a tsunami of suicides. On the hour, the number of people who have offed themselves in hopes of a better reality is updated. People have suicide parties.
The movie opens on a TV interview in progress. The journalist (Mary Steenburgen—director McDowell’s actress mother) asks Thomas if he regrets making his research public. He doesn’t. A crewmember thanks Thomas and then shoots himself in the head.
As a species, knowledge of the inevitability of death sets us apart. Fearing the unknown, we all want to know what comes after.
The scene changes to a ferry. Will (Jason Segal), a neurologist and one of Thomas’s sons, is on his way to see Dad. The ferry is empty except for Isla (Rooney Mara) an enigmatic young woman who runs hot and cold in her encounter with Will. Although Will is opposed to his father’s research, he confides that as a child, he had a brief after death experience. The ferry lands and they part company. Then Will has a premonition. He races to the beach as Isla tries to drown herself and despite her protests, he rescues her.
Toby (Jesse Plemons, one of the best young character actors working—Black Mass, Fargo season 2) is Will’s brother. As they drive to Dad’s new residence, Toby tells him to be prepared for Dad’s project.
I wish I wanted to know more about The Discovery.
There’s an emotional distance. The scenes are dreamlike and like many dreams, emotionally flat. Thomas himself is a cold fish; we have no idea what drives him. The low-key dialogue, almost whispered at times, bothered me. The director wants to keep us at a distance. Why?
Thomas owns a building that was once a private school. People wearing orange jumpsuits roam the grounds. Are they members of a cult? No, we’re told. It sure looks like one. These people are failed suicides, Thomas claims. He gives them purpose. Soon, Isla wanders in and joins the group.
Besides job assignments, there’s a meeting every night and oh yes, there are experiments. Thomas wants a better look at what’s on the other side of death. He’s invented a cap that has a zillion wires attached to it. The wires connect to antiquated video equipment. The idea is to briefly kill someone and then revive him. Maybe the brain camera will record some netherworld home movies.
After another failure, involving an honest to goodness fresh corpse, Thomas is ready to give up. Will, who hates the experiment, accidently discovers that some footage did, in fact record on the monitor.
The monitor’s jumpy images made me want to find some rabbit ears (ask your parents if you don’t know what rabbit ears are) and thump the side of the monitor.
Like every soap opera character in TV history, Will decides not to reveal his discovery, especially not to Dad. Studying the recording’s clues, he decides to find out what it means. Lots of detective work yields little until Isla joins him. Then they fall in love. She tells him more about her life, including how her son died.
As the story meandered to an end, it seemed this film, like Thomas’s wired cap, was an intellectual experiment, devoid of any emotion, its only purpose, to yield data for analytic discussion. Jason does come up with an answer for the why of the afterlife, but it made me shrug (hint—watch Groundhog Day).
Another movie that explores the existence and purpose of an afterlife is 1990’s Flatliners, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts.
Flatliners’ plot centers on medical interns whose experiments resemble Thomas’s. Each intern dies and is brought back by the others. The results are similar to Thomas’s, however, Flatliners kept you on the edge of your seat. It had interesting characters, a dynamic conflict and sharp editing. A remake of Flatliners is scheduled for a September 2017 release.
Will there be a remake of The Discovery? If there is, just shoot me, but make sure you bring the rabbit ears.