There are questions that have haunted humanity since the dawn of time. One question without a definitive answer that haunts humanity – Is there an afterlife? There are those who will proclaim with certainty that know of such a thing. There are those that will hawk books of anecdotal information as their proof. But what if such a thing could be scientifically proven? What would such a discovery do to society, to humanity as a whole? That’s the question at the heart of The Discovery, the new science fiction film from director Charlie McDowell. The Discovery is a captivating piece of speculative fiction with big questions on its mind, and the questions continue to mount as it twists and turns along the way to its climactic reveal.
The first few lines within The Discovery lead one to believe that the movie may play it close to the vest with exactly defining the eponymous discovery. But then the movie just comes right out and says it: Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) has discovered proof of an afterlife and his revolutionary discovery has caused all sorts of problems, the biggest of which is the outbreak of suicides that are sweeping the world. With proof of another plane of existence, people are eager to escape the trapping of the physical world and have found comfort and refuge with the knowledge that their death is not the end. This is driven home when a producer of the television interview interrupts the live broadcast, thanks the doctor, and proceeds to shoot himself in the head.
Sometime later, Will (Jason Segel) is travelling to the secluded island where Dr. Thomas Harbor, his father, has set up his laboratories, which have also began to double as a cult-like environment. On the ferry, Will meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a bleached-blonde with an awkward social manner. Will’s brother Toby (Jesse Plemons) assists their father in his ongoing research, which now has found its latest breakthrough in a device that can document the experiences of the afterlife for those who use it. Meanwhile, Will happens to save Isla from a suicide attempt and pulls her into the cult-like following that has surrounded his father. Whether it’s the world of devotion that Dr. Thomas Harbor has surrounded himself with or the very nature of the afterlife, nothing is quite what is expected in The Discovery.
There’s a streak of cynicism in the heart of the screenplay by McDowell and co-writer Justin Lader. After all, the film opens with a rash of suicides across the world in the wake of Dr. Harbor’s discovery. This is compounded with the cult-like following the doctor assembles in the years following his revelations. Within Dr. Harbor is a character that is still trying to figure out the exact nature of his discovery, yet starts this cult so he can, in his words, give them purpose while exploiting them for his own ends. This takes on a cruel edge when Dr. Harbor publically humiliates his follower Lacey (Riley Keough), who has been among Harbor’s most loyal followers since her family didn’t include her in their suicide pact. Even how Dr. Harbor begins on his quest for his discovery has a layer of cynicism to it, with Will having said he noticed something in a near-death experience as a child, something that seems to echo recent books and movies on the topic.
The Discovery does an excellent job of establishing the film’s premise and the fallout its filmmakers believe would arise because of it. That allows the film a significant amount of leeway to tinker with its characters and the concept at play. As it progresses, Charlie McDowell is able to give us a better understanding as to the nature of this discovered afterlife while adding extra layers of mystery, pulling us in further and further without answering all of the questions at its heart. At the same time, we learn more and more about the characters and what drives them in this world where mass suicide is a regular occurrence. When it gets to the end and its big reveal, The Discovery may get a little goofy, but that’s because this is a movie that isn’t playing with an easy subject. It’s entirely understandable that The Discovery’s big reveal might even be underwhelming, but it’s not like there’s an easy template of what an acceptable afterlife might be.
Charlie McDowell has crafted a compelling piece of sci-fi cinema that has some incredibly big questions at the heart of it. The Discovery plays by its own set of rules and has the excellent cast to lend a sense of credibility to the material. The answers of The Discovery can’t possibly please everyone but there’s a real audacious piece of storytelling here, one that doesn’t take the easy route in its exploration of its world. Take the time to discover The Discovery.
The Discovery debuts exclusively on Netflix on Friday, March 31st.
- Overall Score
The Discovery takes its concept of a world where the afterlife has been proven and turns into a compelling drama that escalates in tension as it unravels its central mystery.