"THE DISCOVERY" — 3 stars — Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough, Ron Canada; not rated, probable R for profanity and some brief violence; Sundance Film Festival
"The Discovery" is a small, intimate movie about a very big idea: What would happen if someone proved there was an afterlife? According to director Charlie McDowell's film, bad things.
"The Discovery" was featured at this year's Sundance Film Festival, so it feels appropriate that Robert Redford plays Thomas Harbor, a scientist whose neurological research proves that our souls go to a different plane after death. Unfortunately, once people feel confident of an afterlife, they begin killing themselves to get there.
The heart of the film picks up on the two-year anniversary of Harbor's discovery, as his estranged son Will (Jason Segel) is taking a ferry to his father's new base of operations on a coastal island. In the time since the discovery, Harbor has created a kind of science cult in a massive mansion. Here, carefully chosen suicide survivors clothed in color-coded jumpsuits provide Harbor with the next phase of his work, which is to get an actual visual of the afterlife.
Now that he's opened the door, Harbor says, "We have to show them what's behind it."
The visual apparatus is the only traditional sci-fi visual in McDowell's low-key movie: an elaborate machine that will hopefully generate an image of what the user is seeing on the other side. Of course, the trick is that the user has to be (at least temporarily) dead.
During his ferry ride, Will meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a ponderous young woman with bleached hair who tries to drown herself soon after she disembarks. Will saves her life and she is brought into Harbor's cult, where they join a curious Frankenstein-like mission, stealing local corpses that they can hook up to the machine as test subjects. The first test appears to be a failure until Will returns later in the night to discover that the experiment yielded a bizarre video.
At a pre-screening appearance at Sundance, McDowell explained that his purpose in making the film was to provoke thought and discussion. "The Discovery" is well suited for that and will certainly inspire introspection in its audience, especially after Will learns exactly what the video recorded.
At the same time, "The Discovery" suffers from the same narrow focus that creates its intimate setting. One would assume there would be a significant theological angle to the notion of proving the existence of an afterlife, but McDowell seems to avoid it. Even Redford's character seems to dismiss its implications early on.
For a movie about such a seemingly positive discovery, McDowell is quick to imagine its downside. Aside from the suicide theme, "The Discovery" is filmed in a perpetual state of dreary, coastal dusk, helping to create a beautiful but dreary tone throughout the film. (And even though the story says only 4 million people have committed suicide, the film's cast feels like it is the last outpost of survivors on the planet.)
All in all, "The Discovery" lays out a compelling premise but doesn't explore it nearly as much as one might expect or hope, and a late narrative twist seems to sell out a feeling of completion for the sake of a "wow" ending. It's good enough to provoke thought, but it will leave viewers wishing it gave them more.
"The Discovery" is not rated, but would have a probable R-rating for profanity and some brief violence; running time: 110 minutes.