The Discovery doesn’t waste any time hitting you with its high concept. The movie opens with a television interview in which reclusive neuroscientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) addresses the fallout from his recent breakthrough. After Harbor has proven the existence of an undefined afterlife, a rash of suicides has broken out—some 4 million by the time the movie proper is underway.
Given that Harbor has discovered only that something lies beyond death, but not any details about what that something might be, it seems unlikely that so many people would be in a rush to get there. Yet I set this incredulousness aside, hoping The Discovery was simply using the conceit as a launching point for something more thoughtful. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
After its prologue, The Discovery shifts its focus to Harbor’s estranged son Will (Jason Segel), who visits his father on a run-down island estate some time after the interview. Will finds that his dad has established a ramshackle community made up of those who attempted, but failed, to commit suicide. Together, they are working on his next project: to identify the exact nature of this afterlife. Also on the estate are Will’s brother Toby (Jesse Plemons) and a cynical mystery woman named Isla (Rooney Mara), with whom Will senses an undefinable connection.
The Discovery has many questions, then, and it spends way too much time (trying) to provide the answers. As with his first movie, The One I Love, director and co-writer Charlie McDowell isn’t content to let his premise set the stage. He wants it to be the stage. And so by the third act of The Discovery—in which Will and Isla begin to unravel both personal and scientific mysteries, leading to a “twist” climax that attempts to explain everything—the film has become a series of convoluted explanations, most of which make more emotional sense for the characters than logical sense for us as viewers.
Whether or not The Discovery all adds up isn’t the issue.
Of course, whether or not The Discovery all adds up isn’t the issue. (I’ve been confused before by movies that others have easily understood, and I’m sure I will be again.) The issue is that The Discovery becomes mostly about whether or not it adds up. Unlike something like Ex Machina, which uses its high concept—is she a human or a robot?—to explore questions of identity, ambition, and the nature of human consciousness, The Discovery simply burrows more deeply into its own precipitating idea. It’s a premise that never finds a purpose beyond itself.
As Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass found in The One I Love, it can be difficult to register a performance in this sort of project. Segel and Mara fare a bit better, though not by much; they find a certain harmony in the film’s mordant sense of humor and thereby manage to carve out a shared emotional space. But Plemons, usually a reliable character actor, is reduced to a series of ticks as Will’s brother, while Redford does what he’s been doing in a handful of his recent screen appearances: deliver pronouncements. He treats the part as if it was another cameo, where there isn’t much need to connect with the other actors.
McDowell does show a stronger visual eye this time around, from the consistently wet and gray aesthetic—as if the movie has been doused by a salty wave—to some eerie imagery when Will submits himself to his father’s brain-scanning device (imagine if HAL 9000 grew tentacles). In general, the production design of the estate, defined by outdated medical equipment piled up in even older drawing rooms, creates a tactile sense of place. Perhaps these are the things—performance, imagery—that McDowell will focus on more in future films, rather than the nooks and crannies of his plots.