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Review: "The Discovery" (2017)


Title: The Discovery (2017)

Genre: Science fiction

Directory: Charlie McDowell

Stars: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough, Robert Redford

Bias: This Netflix-released joint takes cues from various intimate, conceptually-driven, shot-through-with-blue-hues films of the last decade or so. Of those, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is most readily called to mind. As a fan of that film and habitual viewer of other moody, bluish films, I found The Discovery to be a pleasing-enough variation on a theme, if not much more.

Grade: C+

In a Nutshell: Two years before the film’s main action, neurologist Thomas Harbor (Redford) made an extraordinary announcement: he has discovered evidence of an afterlife. Now, the toll of people who have committed suicide in a bid to “get there” has risen into the millions. Morgues are tight for space. Moods are gloomy. Harbor’s decision to publish his findings has become controversial.

Among the critics is Harbor’s semi-estranged son, Will (Segel). In hopes of convincing his father to retract his findings and so put an end to the suicides, Will travels to the island compound where Harbor has been living in reclusion, accumulating a cult of live-in disciples. On his way there, Will meets Isla (Mara), a quirky young woman with a somewhat less skeptical take on “the discovery.” She and Will both wind up lodging at the compound, where they are privy to advances in Harbor’s continuing research that bring to light new details of the great beyond. Meanwhile, there is brewing unrest among Harbor’s followers. And a romantic plot.

The Critique: Like McDowell’s previous feature, The One I Love (2014), The Discovery presents some genuinely mind-boggling spins on the nature of reality. But where the charms of McDowell’s earlier film derive partly from a refusal to resolve the narrative’s existential conundrums, The Discovery suffers from offering too many half-baked answers. Ultimately, I am left puzzling less over these than the question of why, in a movie set on an island and featuring recurring oceanic imagery, the filmmakers felt compelled to reach for the highest echelons of obvious symbolism with the character names “Isla” and “Harbor.”

And as I suggest above (and am not alone in noting), this film is reminiscent of other films to the point of feeling like the product of a movie-generator algorithm. While it would be going a bit far to carry out such an argument, the comparison is not strictly figurative given that the film was picked up by Netflix, with all its algorithmic prowess. The Discovery has indie-bankable stars, “sticky” conceptual fodder, and heavy enough digital color grading to make you think: yes, I am definitely watching a stylish contemporary movie. But there is no there, there.

Most startling is the way the construction of certain scenes, relationships, and thematic material make the film feel like a mashup of previous critically successful titles. In one scene, we get Will’s put-upon brother, Toby, creating a diversionary tactic in a morgue while Will and Isla attempt to steal a cadaver for research use. Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad (2008-13) fame plays Toby, acting opposite Connor Ratfliff as a coroner who might as well be auditioning for the role of Gale Boetticher in a Breaking Bad reboot. Meanwhile, to the extent that The Discovery cares about its cult plot, those elements feel culled from a dream you might have after watching 2012’s The Master. Elsewhere still, the presentation of Will and Isla’s (repetitious) meeting on a ferry will remind Eternal Sunshine fans of the “meet me in Montauk” line, perhaps giving them the impression that they are caught in a cinematic loop—which may not be far from the mark, as it were.

Shout-out(s): Pleasantly gloomy to look at.

To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix: This film will be on Netflix, just sitting there in the form of streamable ones and zeroes, probably for the duration of the company’s existence. If you’re into sci-fi, you might vaguely enjoy it.

Photo credit: Netflix

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