Occasionally Netflix unceremoniously drops a lovely surprise, and a Friday night I’d otherwise spend with another awful old slasher film is suddenly magical. This weekend they released The Discovery, a slow, magnetic science fiction oddity starring Robert Redford, Rooney Mara, and Jason Segel. It may be too quiet and quaint a film to satisfy hardened science fiction fans, but I appreciated its retreat into the minds of its characters. Its speculative elements are mechanical and uninteresting, but the drama that they unleash is surprisingly moving.
The Discovery is a low budget film (with the presumable exception of its high-powered cast) shot mostly on location in what appear to be the San Juan Islands. Two years before the film begins, Redford’s brilliant neurologist, Thomas Harbor, publishes findings that he has detected some sort of quantum energy radiating off of deceased brains (or something, never ask a film to explain its absurd future-science). The world receives this as evidence of consciousness after death, and people begin killing themselves by the million just because they’ve had it here and want to check out whatever is next. I’m not sure I buy this setup. Despite its grimness It’s a tall-taled mcguffin, but it’s effective enough as a dramatic starting point.
Jason Segel, as Harbor’s son Will, is on a ferry ride home and encounters Rooney Mara’s Isla. Deja vu ensues (they feel as though they’ve known each other though they’ve never met), followed by a string of chance encounters and, finally, a weird stay in a large compound that Harbor has built together with his other son Toby, played by the increasingly fascinating Jesse Plemons. Harbor’s work attracts many, and to assuage his guilt over the chaos his discovery unleashed on the world, he welcomes survivors of suicide attempts into dormitories on his campus. Altogether, dressed in color-coded jumpsuits, they comprise a community of borderline cultists intent to witness whatever Harbor will next discover. Closing in on this discovery challenges everyone in its orbit to accept, on faith, that their existential fears will soon be alleviated. Multidimensional mysteries follow, of course.
(I need to interrupt myself to complain about on-the-nose character names. The film’s director Charlie McDowell and his co-writer Justin Lader do fine work overall but come on. The scientist who researches where we go when we lift off from here is called Harbor? The woman whose backstory involves great loss on an island and subsequent emotional self-isolation is Isla? The one guy whose willpower disrupts the whole thing is called Will? This is amateur stuff.)
I’ve always liked both Jason Segel and Rooney Mara, but never unreservedly. Of their work that I’ve seen, this is career-best. Segel, in particular, crosses that bridge into demanding drama that gifted comedic performers often make look easy. Consider Jim Carrey in Gondry and Kaufman’s untouchable Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is one of many echoes of that film, another (only just) sci-fi film concerned with memorial loops, en-route romantic encounters, deja vu, and the fanciful idea that love traverses dimensions. The Discovery, however, is decidedly unfunny (well, sans some deeply grim corpse humor and a few unintended laughs at its daffy movie-science). It is quiet where Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is frenetic, and its metaphysics have no clever visual metaphors to them. It looks and feels mundane given the weight of its topic – which is why, in large part, its emotional wallup is so surprising. Nothing distracts from its characters’ experiences.
Films about afterlives often trade in multi-dimensional groundhog days. The convention is tiresome. Any hour of any cheap tv show about ghost-busters gives you shades who can’t rest until some riddle is solved that then releases them. The Discovery just repackages this old trope and tells it from the perspective of the not-yet-dead. The thing is, none of that matters very much. The film isn’t about science or metaphysical answers. It’s about humans finding (or failing to find) reasons not to die. Never mind trite notions about living happy or fulfilling lives; just ease enough of our guilt or despair or shame to allow us to survive another day. Life sucks and it hurts but it’s what we’ve got.
BIG DAMN SPOILER AHEAD, WE’RE DEALING WITH THE END OF THE FILM
FINAL WARNING, NO JOKE
The gutsiest thing the film does is end with Will choosing to die because he wants to believe that he will see Isla again on the other side. So, in a film about humans struggling to find a reason to keep going here, our hero says fuck it, and we are right there with him. We want him to die if it means he’ll have a shot at something he missed in life. Even for a tiny sci-art film on Netflix, this is heady. Its final images are gratifying if cornily Malicky, but this choice, and the film’s success in winning us over to it, is admirable.