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A Review of "The Discovery" (2017)

A couple of days ago, I wrote a bit about some similarities between one of my books and the recently-posted-to-Netflix movie The Discovery.  But nowhere in that post did I actually describe my thoughts on the movie itself, outside of how it related to my own book.  In the interest of fairness and not being totally egocentric, I figured a follow-up post with a review would be a good idea.

A Quick Plot Summary

The Discovery is a science-fiction romantic drama that takes place in a world where Dr. Thomas Harber (Robert Redford) has found conclusive evidence that an afterlife exists.  After he publishes his findings, the suicide rate around the world surges.  This unexpected consequence leaves Harber's son, Will (Jason Segel), with a bad taste in his mouth.  Will can't fully argue with his father's results, but at the same time, he believes further and more conclusive experimentation is a must.

The story opens on a ferry as Will travels to the small town where his father lives and works.  Along the way, he meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a sarcastic and mysterious woman to whom he feels an unusual attraction.  They chat for a bit, and after an uneventful meet cute, they part ways.  Will goes to his father's lab, which has been built inside of a rehabbed private school that now serves as something of a compound where various folks work, live, and assist Dr. Harber.  Will is quick to point out the more-than-superficial similarities between Harber's compound and a cult, but Dr. Harber hand waves that away as a necessary evil so he can continue his research into the afterlife.

Later that day, Will sees Isla on the beach and realizes she's trying to drown herself.  He swims out to rescue her and brings her back to his dad's compound where she joins the other oddballs as part of Dr. Harber's cult / research staff.

From there, the movie goes into more micro details that I don't need to get into about the philosophical underpinnings of Dr. Harber's research, its influence on the day-to-day behaviors of people, and the specific goals and processes of Dr. Harber's research.  Tensions grow between some of the cultists/researchers as Dr. Harber ramps up his testing.  Soon he introduces a new device that should, in theory, put the subject using it into a state of medical death, then record and broadcast what they are thinking in the next plane of existence.  Initial testing of the afterlife-recorder device doesn't go as expected and Dr. Harber thinks it doesn't work.  Unbeknownst to him, Will accidentally stumbles onto a recording from the device later that seems to be a dead man's memory.  This  kickstarts an independent investigation he undergoes for the better half of the movie.  While looking into that, Will also grows stronger feelings for Isla, and the two eventually start to fall in love.

A Quick Spoiler of the Ending

Somewhere in the third act the movie makes it explicitly clear that the device Dr. Harber invented does, in fact, record what a deceased person is experiencing in the afterlife.  The exact nature of the afterlife appears to be highly subjective and personal, as it seems to be an alternate version of our world where minor things are changed, but the deceased has a chance to put to rest any regrets that have been plaguing them.

Will gets to test this more directly after an ex-cultist/researcher shoots and kills Isla.  Distraught, Will hooks himself up to the recording device and allows it to kill his heartbeat, letting him go into his own afterlife.  He appears on the same ferry from the beginning of the movie and meets Isla again.  There, she explains the shocking twist ending that's not all that shocking: Will died a long time ago, and in his original life, he was not able to prevent Isla's suicide.  Since then, he has gone through a life/death loop multiple times where he grew closer and closer to her, until just now when he was able to actually prevent her drowning.  Isla then tells him he's about to go through another loop, but this one will be a fresh start where he can let go of that regret and try something new.

The screen flashes, and a freshly-reincarnated Will is walking along a beach where he meets (a much happier reincarnation of) Isla and stops her son from an accidental drowning.  Instead of anything tragic, the movie ends with Will looking back at Isla and thinking he might recognize her.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

I am deeply ambivalent about this film.  I think my shorthand way to describe it is, "Good premise, faulty execution."

First things first: I like the premise.  I mean, of course I like it... if I didn't like it, I wouldn't have written my own book that deals with much of the same subject matter.  I also felt like the story that was constructed off that premise is a pretty good one - it's a great way to delve into some substantial, global-scale topics while keeping the actual forward motion focused and digestible.  This is the kind of premise that can spiral out of control if you're not careful and you end up with something either wretchedly convoluted or undeservedly epic, and neither one of those is fun.  (And yes, I recognize this is the perfect setup for critics of my book to throw that back in my face.)

The actual filmmaking itself is good.  It looks and sounds crisp, and the editing is tight enough that it keeps you gripped from beginning to end.  The acting is pretty good all around, although I didn't quite buy into the romance between the leads.  (More on that later.)  From a pure "how much does this resemble a proper movie" level, The Discovery easily passes.  I recognize that may not sound like stellar praise - but it absolutely is.  Virtually all big-budget spectacles fail this test flat out.

Most of my complaints have to do with either the ending or the overall stakes of the movie's universe.  Consider the movie's central problem.  It makes a big deal about how the suicide rate has skyrocketed, and while it's definitely gone up - about 4 million people have killed themselves in the year since the afterlife was discovered - it's not quite at a staggering level.  For comparison, our current global suicide rate is already over a million a year.

This takes a little bit of the sting out of the story right away.  I'm not saying that 4 million suicides isn't a big deal, I'm just saying that heart disease kills almost 9 million people worldwide each year and we all still have a pretty "meh" reaction to cardiovascular health.  I would have preferred it if the movie went for broke and was like, "Twenty million people killed themselves last year."  That would be one of those "holy shit, things have really changed" moments.

For that matter, there's not enough of a sense of the titular discovery's impact outside of the suicides.  The Discovery is so confined with its cast and setting that you don't truly get a sense of how things have changed.  There aren't any talking head news reports where people debate the science, no political ramifications where a new party is formed or fails, no shifts in religion, no new slang terms or ways of speaking.  There are some conversations here and there where you get a tiny taste of the new world, but it never feels like it has a lot of weight.  Everything always feels isolated and confined because it is isolated and confined.  Virtually the whole movie takes place within Dr. Harber's compound and the resulting bubble is a bit stifling.

Paradoxically, that's also one of the things I enjoyed about the movie.  Because it depends on such a small scale of place, time, and people, it's a very intimate film.  I appreciate that quite a bit.  Keeping everything in the compound gives you an immediate and pervasive sense of dread and consequence.  It's a good way to build tension between Will and his father, as they're effectively stuck in a bottle even if it technically they aren't.

So, I could actually forgive the movie for feeling small and relatively low-stakes if not for the last fifteen minutes or so.  To me, that's where the movie goes from "unique mystery story set in a science-fiction world" to "twist ending that's neither needed nor believable."

See, the whole thing ends up being staked on the romance between Will and Isla, and that's easily the worst part of the film.  Jason Segel and Rooney Mara both do a good job with their performances, but the chemistry they have between each other is more like "support network" than it is "fiery passion."  I can totally believe that Will wants to stop Isla's suicide.  I can believe that they're friends.  I can believe that they get lattes every Sunday and go to the park to have a walk and check on each other's wellbeing.  I can believe that they'd attend each other's weddings and each other's kids' birthday parties.  I just don't believe that they love each other.  And I certainly don't believe that Isla's death would be such a cruel challenge for Will to overcome that his entire afterlife would hinge on whether or not he can stop her from killing herself.

Not only is Will's afterlife unbelievable due to their relationship, it also invites too many questions that the movie never bothers to address.  If Will is living out an unending loop of life/regret/death, but he doesn't actually remember any of his past lives, then what is the force that is making him loop back around to Isla's suicide each time?  The implication is either A) that regret is such a powerful feeling that it will permanently alter your perception of reality, in which case you have to wonder what happens to all the rest of us who have multiple regrets in life and not just one bad day, or B) there is a higher force at work - perhaps God, perhaps many gods - that dictates who has to go through a regret loop and decides the specific logistics of how said loop will operate.

Neither conclusion is satisfactory.  I think what The Discovery is trying to relate is a story about the acceptance of tragedy as a means to move on with life and be content.  That's a sweet and touching message to try to convey.  It also partners beautifully with the concept of suicide, which is very specifically not being able to accept sadness and move on.  But once you start talking about existence as a series of never-ending spirals to overcome regret, you start down the path of nihilism.  Consider: the movie never actually does make a case that suicide is a bad thing.  Will is able to save Isla and, eventually, her son specifically because he committed suicide.

The Discovery started out as a meditation on loss and consequence.  For about an hour and ten minutes, it mostly succeeds at that even if it doesn't quite deliver any clear messages.  With just some minor changes to the ending, it would have stayed that way and been a hell of a lot stronger.

My Rating: 3 / 5