On minor uses of mind-altering ideas, aspirations toward cult status, and an underwhelming Discovery
The Discovery Netflix
Director: Charlie McDowell
Screenplay: Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader
Starring: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, Robert Redford, Ron Canada and Riley Keough
Not rated / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / Netflix
(out of four)
Oh, boy, The Discovery really wants to wind up thumbtacked to the dorm-room walls of a generation of college freshmen, doesn't it.
Not on the side of the wall reserved for The Dude, Tony Montana and Bluto - on the other side, next to the tattered Donnie Darko one-sheet. That is the pantheon of cinema it wishes to join. The movies whispered about among new friends - passed along, obsessively rewatched, borrowed and never returned. The ones that take their online audience down endless speculative rabbit holes. The ones recommended during intense late-night conversations, invariably accompanied by that magic phrase: "This movie is going to blow your mind."
You can blame my generation if you want to. Not that "mind-bending" genre movies were anything new, but there's been an overwhelming predisposition toward them over the last two decades. You can blame the Wachowskis, for the rabid decoding that accompanied The Matrix among members of its adoring flock, perhaps inadvertently establishing a specific ideal for the new century. So many of these types have come out of the indie world, perhaps as a result of a few bellwethers (namely Darko and Memento) that generated word-of-mouth popularity and huge cult followings in the early 2000s. Primer has been a similar standard-bearer over the last decade. IMDb top-250s and "all-time best" listicles are littered with movies fitting this profile. Understand, I bear no ill will toward them - many are outstanding. Just pointing out that we've had a pretty skewed inclination toward them, responding as rapturously to twisty head-trips as your dad does to World War II movies. Our non-linear, sentimental, time-traveling, paradoxical romantic tragedy about memory and fate is his Invasion of Normandy.
But like anything else with this kind of prevalence and popularity, it quickly evolves into a formula, one that grows more and more easily replicable with every passing Sundance, with each new viewing of The Machinist, with each new binge-watch of Lost. Directed by Charlie McDowell, The Discovery begins as a fascinating hypothetical, settles into a grey area of possibility and doubt and moral responsibility, and finally collapses - completely - when it decides that what it really wants to be is a twisty sad emo romance. All of a sudden it abandons its pretext in favor of an inexplicable sentimental narrative - one hiding in plain sight - that's both disastrously miscalculated and entirely unconvincing. Everything that was actually interesting about the film, it abruptly abandons, except inasmuch as the thought-provoking premise - hard scientific proof of an afterlife, or "other plane of existence," and the possibility to view and record footage of where people go after death - serves as the impetus for characters' comparatively flimsy, less-interesting objectives and choices. Which is to say, the film was disingenuous about its premise all along.
You can see exactly what effect McDowell is going for. It's explicitly clear what emotions he's trying to elicit, what parts of the brain he's trying to ignite. Over here, he's trying to strike an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind chord, over there a Vanilla Sky; over here he's hitting a wretched Butterfly Effect note, over there a Moon. (And just to be clear, no, the film's actual secret is not the premise of any of those four movies.) The Discovery wants to deliver the same impact as the best of those movies - the harsh melancholy of Eternal Sunshine seems to be a particular benchmark here - but it's so obvious and overcalculated in its thought and so clumsy in its execution that it lands with an empty thud. This is the bad idea you had in college after watching too much Christopher Nolan. This is the kind of movie that makes all that Brit Marling / Zal Batmanglia / Mike Cahill stuff look like Kubrick by comparison.
The film isn't a puzzle box, exactly, but it does act like one. At least when the time comes to start explaining itself. In any good puzzle movie (and there are more bad ones), the puzzle itself is the least interesting aspect; it's fun and it can be an effective apparatus for whatever ideas and stories they're trying to get across, but it's ultimately only a tool, with no significant meaning in and of itself. The Discovery behaves like one of the bad ones, taking its time to point out exactly how everything fits together and makes sense, without ever considering whether any of it is dramatically relevant. For the record: it isn't. Movies like this are often designed to be - or at least seem - more psychologically or philosophically labyrinthine the more you think about them. This one is the opposite; the more you think about it, the more you realize that the very point it boils down to - one big gesture, one character's entire self-determined purpose - is almost staggeringly irrelevant. Minuscule compared to what the premise offers. A movie that purports to pose questions about the eternal fate of human beings - that brushes against big ideas about existence itself; that opens new scientific doors previously rooted only in theory (at best) - can muster nothing better than an endgame with the profundity of an inspirational life-insurance commercial. It also uses such an indefensibly clunky method to get its climactic explanation across that it thoroughly sabotages any remaining chance to achieve what ambitions it had left. It explains itself so clearly that it's impossible to puzzle over it, to examine its depths, to go over its implications in your mind. There are none. And what "answers" it has certainly provide no illumination into the fundamental subject matter - which, again, is the not-insignificant discovery of life after death.
Not only that, but considering how important specific relationships are to the story's landing spot, the film does a piss-poor job finessing those dynamics - making them feel important or emotionally charged enough to justify where they're ultimately headed. There's a perfunctory apparent romance between ostensible leads Will (Jason Segel) - whose father is the scientist who discovered this "other plane of existence," inadvertently setting in motion a global wave of suicides and an entirely new collective reaction to death - and Isla (Rooney Mara), who's suicidal herself but finds a sort of temporary home at the secret island fortress belonging to Will's dad, Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), who's only continued to expand on his research in the two years since his discovery. I say apparent romance because the actors don't generate a single electron of heat between them, yet their personal connection is meant to be of monumental narrative importance. It's not even just the lack of sexual chemistry that's conspicuous, but the throwaway manner in which McDowell handles any possible romantic involvement between the two at all. In action, it reads only as obligatory - and even on those terms, unconvincing.
Still, Will and Isla - along with Will's brother Toby (Jesse Plemons, who continues to pile up an impressive resume of character work) and various volunteers at the estate - hum along nicely early on, as the film remains effective in the earlygoing when it's still feeling its ideas out. Still thinking, still investigating, still unsure. Eventually it starts to wobble, cutting corners with scenes of amateur sleuthing and comical subterfuge and thievery that move the plot along efficiently but cheaply. That would all be passable if only the film could manage to nail the follow-through. And then: catastrophe.
McDowell, whose debut feature was the delightful The One I Love, tells stories with an overt focus on introspection and self-examination. He is preoccupied with choices and regrets, with finding or remembering or becoming our better selves. Those are intimate notions that deserve to be treated with the profundity he clearly aspires to. In this case, he marries them to larger existential ideas - a noble ambition, but a difficult one. What he somehow accomplishes with The Discovery is to make his big ideas seem small, and his small, intimate ideas seem even smaller.