Film in review: ‘The Discovery’

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

Nathaniel Nelson / Winonan

“The Discovery” was released on Netflix last week, and to be completely honest, it’s a bit of a conundrum. Directed by Charlie McDowell, the film is a mixture of science fiction, romance and mystery, but it’s not particularly successful at any of the three. Netflix has been at the top of its game in recent months, barring a few outliers, but this film doesn’t show it. With an intriguing concept, stellar cast and relaxed visual palette, “The Discovery” starts out promising before losing focus and ending in a sea of vapid clichés.

The story of the film centers around the discovery (hence the name) by scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) that an afterlife does indeed exist. That discovery has led to a massive uptick in suicides across the globe, as people see dying as relocating instead of the end. Will Harbor (Jason Segel) is returning to visit his father two years after the discovery when he meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a suicidal woman who lost her child several years back. After a long series of events, the two end up on a journey to discover what the afterlife really is.

I’ll just come out and say it: the concept behind the film is absolutely genius. Finding proof of the afterlife would have devastating effects all across the globe, and I’m surprised that nobody thought of using it for a film sooner. It’s a shame, then, that “The Discovery” had to be so unremarkably bland. There are some stellar concepts and ideas thrown around throughout the film, but nothing lands the way it should. At its best, the film feels messy. At its worst, it’s tone deaf and plodding.

Part of that comes from its complete inability to stick with a single style. As I said, it’s basically a big melting pot of different genres and archetypes, but because of that nothing really works.

Now, it has to be said that I really enjoyed the first third of the film. It set up the concepts nicely, was paced well, and had this beautiful subdued visual style reminiscent of “Upstream Color,” one of the best sci-fi romances in recent memory. But once Will and Isla make it to Thomas’s mansion, the film takes a hard left into mystery territory. The thing about genre-benders is that even though they take in multiple genres and tropes, they still have a distinct foundation. For example, “Alien” is a perfect blend of science fiction and horror because it never lets either genre sink into the background. It’s seamless, while “The Discovery” is anything but. It jumps between the romance, mystery and science fiction elements left and right and refuses to let anything sit.

Beyond that, the entire last third of the film is packed to the brim, and not in a good way. They try to push a ton of concepts and plot twists minutes before the credits roll, and the actual ending of the film is so bizarrely disconnected and forced that I honestly felt frustrated having watched it. Even if the rest of the film was stellar, closing it with a surprise plot twist is a one-way ticket to failure. There’s a reason why M. Night Shyamalan got so much flack for it in the early 2000s.

From a technical standpoint, “The Discovery” isn’t all that bad. The cast, including Robert Redford and Rooney Mara, is stacked with talented actors who give it their all despite the screenplay’s shortcomings. The only outlier is Segel, who should really stick to his comedic guns. Mara is delightful as usual and Redford is in prime rugged form, but acting can only take a film so far. The cinematography, on the other hand, is consistently stunning and ethereal and actually does help to improve the film.

It’s not that the “The Discovery” is inherently a bad film. It starts out promising, has a stellar cast, and a genius concept. However, the constant inconsistencies in the script and lack of direction brings the rest of the film down. It’s a shame that McDowell messed it up, because this could have been a great little flick. It might be called “The Discovery,” but it’s more like “The Disappointment.” 2/5

By Nathaniel Nelson

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