It’s hard to pin down precisely where we lose interest in the goings-on of “The Discovery,” Netflix’s newest arrival helmed by Charlie McDowell (“The One I Love”). It opens with a deliciously crafted premise: What would happen if a scientist discovered proof that we go somewhere after we die?
In the film, the answer is fairly straightforward — millions of people begin committing suicide. While offering a fairly coarse simplification of what would likely be a complex response, McDowell sidesteps the issue cleanly enough by focusing the film down to a microcosm, an isolated Rhode Island mansion where Thomas Harper (Robert Redford), discoverer of “the afterlife,” continues his research. It’s the second anniversary since the discovery, and his nearly estranged son Will (Jason Segel) is on the ferry to meet him, pleading with him to recuse his work and stop the suicides.
The opening scenes bear textual references to Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men,” another film constructed around the drama that emerges from a humanity-changing revelation. And much like in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” we will return to this ferry later on, in the place it occupies in the mind.
The first 15 minutes of “The Discovery” are intriguing, if not as masterfully executed as Cuarón and Nolan’s works. But where those films achieved a suspense of disbelief by fully realizing their alternate realities, weaving them wholly into the sets and characters, “The Discovery” feels somehow … inauthentic. Segel’s character — a neuroscientist, though we never see him flex those chops — seems trapped between our real world and the imagined one of the film, as if the changes the film envisions hasn’t quite made it to him yet.
As the film moves into its second act, featuring a growing romance — forced, with no chemistry — between Will and Isla (Rooney Mara), a girl he prevents from committing suicide, we start to wonder if the film will present any real answers to the initial question it poses. The film keeps us guessing by distracting us with father-son drama and several capers involving corpses that, even in the world of the film, seem highly dubious.
Though McDowell does a satisfactory job trying to realistically motivate his characters, their backstories are too simple and soapy to allow space for nuanced performances on the part of Segal, Mara and Redford. Isla is the only one of the three without an arrow-straight goal, but she becomes less interesting rather than more as the film progresses, and she settles into a quieter role as Will’s love interest. The fact that “The Discovery” doesn’t have enough character conflict to carry it through all three acts is evidenced by its reliance on the crutch of deliberately dredging up backstory late into the final sequences.
Those final sequences are where “The Discovery” actually attempts to respond to its own premise, but one gets the impression the film was never about that, and the explanation is as unwieldy as it is confusing, touching on pseudo-spiritual, moralizing sentiments that jump suddenly out of the sci-fi realm the film had existed in before. It’s unsatisfying as a sci-fi ending — a purgatorial space that proverbially kicks the can down the road, when perhaps no attempt at an answer might have been more effective.
And if the film wasn’t about that anyway, then what was it about? The relationship between Will and his father changes naught, and the idea that Isla could be cured of her depressive numbness in a few short weeks by Will — not that he ever explicitly does anything that would lead us to believe she would be — rings hollow as well.
On the other hand, there’s nothing egregiously wrong with any of the directorial or creative decision-making, and though it may not intellectually stimulate in the way many might have hoped — the film worries about consciousness more than it explores it — it’s still a decently engaging story. But “The Discovery” leaves little lasting impression besides a vague desire that it had brought something more to the table.