Starring Robert Redford and Jason Segal, THE DISCOVERY (2017, Netflix) starts off with a fantastic premise. What if a scientist discovered proof that human consciousness departs the body at death?
It’s months after the Discovery, and the world is not a happy place. Millions have committed suicide, opting out of this existence–maybe in hopes of something better, to join loved ones they’ve lost, or because their lives on Earth have become too difficult. Will (Jason Segal) rides a ferry to the island where he grew up. He wants to see his father, Dr. Thomas Harbor (Redford), with whom he worked to achieve the Discovery. Will meets a woman named Isla (yes, all these names are symbolic) on the ferry, and we come to understand he think the Discovery was a mistake.
His father is now living in a secluded mansion with Will’s odd brother, which is overrun by people directly impacted by the Discovery–suicides and those who lost loved ones to suicide. These people live at the house organized in something like a cult, and they’re helping Harbor with the Discovery’s next phase–to see where the soul goes after death.
Wow, right? But the result is pretty mixed.
The film has gotten some criticism for being a bit of a slog. It is slow and a bit dreary, true, but I liked the low-key aspect of it, how it worked with the fantastic nature of the Discovery itself. There’s quite a bit of philosophy in the dialogue, as people question life and death in light of knowing with certainty something comes after. Big ideas are made deeply personal within the context of the relationships between Will and both his family and Isla.
In the second half of the film, however, it started to get off track for me for one big reason: it started to scream ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND ripoff. Charlie McDowell, the writer-director, was previously compared to screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann for his debut THE ONE I LOVE. In the beginning of THE DISCOVERY, we have a lot of similar elements as ETERNAL SUNSHINE–downcast man meets and spars/flirts with wacky but troubled girl with dyed hair, there’s a fantastic invention that changes everything, a funny lab tech, etc. By the second half, THE DISCOVERY became so blatantly aligned with ETERNAL SUNSHINE that I knew exactly how it would end far before it happened. Even the score sounded the same. But unfortunately without the same strong emotional chemistry that Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet achieved.
The result is a thoughtful film with good writing and terrific potential that falls flat, especially if you’ve seen it before in ETERNAL SUNSHINE.