Film Review: The Discovery

Jason Segel and Robert Redford face off in soggy, cerebral sci-fi drama.
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If, in the near future, some brilliant scientist should invent a machine that proves the post-mortem transmission of human brain waves towards a distant, unseeable place out there, one could imagine this breakthrough bringing about the dawn of a new age, and not just hastening the end of mankind. Alas, in writer-director Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery, the machine in question, developed by cagey neuroscientist Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), provides answers that knock the world sorely off-balance. As understood by most of civilization, Harbor’s contraption—which also records images broadcast from the beyond, of the thoughts or experiences of the corporeally deceased—offers unassailable scientific evidence of an afterlife, or what the inventor prefers to call “a new plane of existence.”

Knowledge that human consciousness, untethered from its earthly form, goes somewhere else, though not even Harbor can say where, and continues on in a state of being, though not even Harbor can determine what that is, might be considered enlightenment. For director McDowell and co-screenwriter, Justin Lader—collaborating for a second adventure in thinking-man’s science fiction, following their 2014 Sundance favorite The One I Love—the discovery serves as the impetus for a decidedly dreary exploration of how the certainty of an afterlife alters humanity’s concept of death.

Since Harbor’s findings went public, suicides have spiked around the globe, as people from all walks of life have made the now surer bet to throw off this mortal coil and give the next plane of existence a try. The film doesn’t much explore the fact that, with or without shaky video “evidence,” there exist hundreds of millions of people who already believe in an afterlife yet aren’t lining up to jump off tall buildings “to get there,” as is the parlance of McDowell and Lader’s script. Short shrift is given to what separates a religious person’s faith from a scientist’s certainty.

In more general terms, the distinction between belief and proof underlies much of the action, starting with a promisingly tense opening scene featuring Harbor, patient but defensive, as he’s interviewed by a needling TV journalist (Mary Steenburgen, in a welcome cameo) live on her program. But something goes horribly wrong during the interview—and for the movie’s momentum, as the story shifts abruptly from the scientist and the journalist, played by two 1980 Oscar winners, to a dank, blue-gray afternoon in New England, where Jason Segel’s pensive neurologist Will, carrying a visible load of movie pain, rides a slow, slow ferry to Newport, Rhode Island. On the boat, Will encounters the only other passenger, Rooney Mara’s bracingly forthright, bleached-blonde Isla, a woman remarkably full of life in this world consumed with death and loss.

Due more to the fact that they’re the only two people onscreen than to any discernible attraction, Will and Isla hit it off, then part ways on the island as he sets off to find his estranged father. First, he meets up with his brother, Toby (Jesse Plemons), who takes him to the seaside compound in an abandoned mansion where their reclusive father, one Dr. Thomas Harbor, has holed up to continue his research with the machine. In order to expand his knowledge of alternative planes of existence, Harbor, forced into hiding by the notoriety of his invention, now conducts extremely hazardous flatlining and reanimation experiments, aided by a cult-like coterie of lab assistants and followers in color-coordinated coveralls.

Shot in and around Newport and nearby Middletown in a palette of drab blues, olives, grays and browns, this sleepy sci-fi dirge only fitfully gathers any momentum, as in a well-edited, playfully macabre sequence that finds Harbor, Will and company turning to bodysnatching to facilitate the doctor’s tests. Redford is compelling as the wily, driven Harbor, but for the most part, we’re stranded on suicide island, watching the unconvincing romance of Will and Isla, as enacted by a humorless Segel and credibly depressed Mara.

The action perks up a bit trolling the grounds of Harbor’s compound, a false idyll populated by lost and searching souls like young Lacey (Riley Keough), one of Harbor’s acolytes, who takes none too kindly to the disruptive arrival at the mansion of would-be rival Isla. Keough portrays the girl’s gradually curdling jealousy with a fire that suits the film’s occasional swerves into dark thriller territory, a mood also captured in one unnerving scene depicting a video transmission of a dead man’s memories… or dreams… or alternate reality. Despite all its talk of scientific evidence, the film doesn’t nail down exactly what Harbor has discovered, although an unexpected twist does attempt to render a decisive explanation. That twist at least closes the film, about a world of humanity in a rush to end itself, with a welcome burst of genre energy— but too late to save a mostly glum drama that’s as cold and wet as a ferry ride to Newport in November. 

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