Considering the great year first time directors have had, it’s disappointing that director Charlie McDowell’s second movie is so sophomoric. The Discovery quickly turns its smart premise, “what if science proved the existence of an afterlife?” into window-dressing for a much less interesting romantic plot between two adults written with the emotional depth and rhetorical style of teenagers. The Discovery echoes better movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Children of Men, and The Master; but through a number of amateurish missteps, fails to meet the high marks those other movies set.
Two years after the definitive discovery of an afterlife, and following the related massive uptick in suicides, we meet Will (Jason Segel) on a ferry to visit his father, Dr. Thomas Harper (Robert Redford), the man who discovered the afterlife. The only other person on the ferry is Isla (Roony Mara), a prickly and quirky manic pixie dream girl, whose suicide attempt Will heroically intervenes in. Following that, Will invites Isla to live with himself, his brother, his father, and his father’s multi-color jumpsuited not-a-cult as they attempt to discover what the afterlife is, instead of just having proof that one exists.
After a propulsive opening scene, The Discovery seems to settle into a more comfortable pace for idea-heavy sci-fi before you realize that no, this movie is just plodding. And gray. This movie is gray because gray is the color that movies are when they’re pretending to be smart. Actually, a lot of this movie is like that. The abandoned North-Eastern mansion, allusions to Scientology, anachronistic technology, discordant soundtrack, Robert Redford; all things movies use when they want to be smart.
But The Discovery fails to actually do anything smart with its premise. That the discovery of an afterlife has caused a suicide epidemic is literally just a background element, with digital suicide counters posted in public spaces that encourage people to keep living, and we’re just supposed to accept this matter-of-factly without the film ever exploring why the discovery of a vaguely defined afterlife would lead so many people to take their own lives so easily. Likewise, the discovery’s effect on how murder would be treated is relegated to a poorly executed Chekhov’s gun.
What The Discovery really misses is that movies like Eternal Sunshine and Children of Men aren’t just smart because of their premises, but how they use those premises to explore larger parts of the human experience. But The Discovery doesn’t seem to care much about its characters either. Segel is miscast as a humorless, unmotivated sad-sack whose reason for being part of the plot isn’t revealed until a final 10-minutes reveal that still leaves so much to be desired. Mara’s Isla is on default moody manic-pixie for the entire movie, and her entire personality is located in her platinum-blonde dye-job. Other supporting characters have about one characteristic or quirk to work with for the entire movie; and Robert Redford is the only engaging thing about the entire movie because Robert Redford could act in an adaptation of an EULA and be fun to watch.
The only solid motivation any character in this movie has is to kill themselves, and that’s not a terribly engaging hook for 100 minutes. The movie’s central mystery about the nature of the afterlife should be interesting, but because none of the characters particularly care about it, there’s no reason for the audience to either. The Discovery is too in its own character’s heads, and doesn’t give those characters any interesting thoughts about their world. As a result, we’re left with an aimless gray movie on an endless gray island where the only thing to do is wait for the end, which isn’t even actually the end.