January may be a notoriously bad time for movies in the rest of the world but at Sundance, the business is booming. A few days ago, I saw the cerebral, thought-provoking film THE DISCOVERY, written and directed by Charlie McDowell. I have been a huge fan of McDowell’s work since I saw his vastly underrated film, THE ONE I LOVE (available for streaming on Amazon Prime). So much so, I couldn’t wait to see his next film! Thankfully, THE DISCOVERY is an equally original idea, anchored by fantastic performances from Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, and Jesse Plemmons. With beautiful cinematography from Sturla Brandth Grovlen and a haunting score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, McDowell’s sophomore project is sure to make it on many top ten lists at Sundance this year, and will be a conversation starter when it is released by Netflix in March.
An ambitious, sci-fi romance set in a bleak world of death and what comes after it, THE DISCOVERY questions what would happen to society if the existence of life after death was confirmed by science. Dr. Harbor (Robert Redford) spends his life’s work attempting to prove the existence of “another plane of existence,” aka an afterlife. However, when he finally does make the discovery, that there is evidence of brainwaves leaving the body after death, it has serious, unintended circumstances, including millions of people committing suicide, or “getting there”.
After his monumental discovery, Dr. Harbor still isn’t finished exploring the idea of the afterlife. This time he wants to uncover what the afterlife actually is. What are people experiencing there? Are people killing themselves only to get to a more awful place? But this time, Dr. Harbor decides to make his work even more private in order to prevent an increase in suicides based on his findings. He and a few trusted people work in a secluded compound on a dreary island, which is only accessible by ferry. It is on this ferry that we meet Will (Jason Segel) and Isla (Rooney Mara), two strangers who have struck up a conversation about Harbor’s discovery. Will is skeptical about the existence of the afterlife, whereas Isla seems more accepting. As the two arrive on the island, their views on Harbor’s work are challenged as they come face to face with the man himself.
Inevitably, there are going to be comparisons THE DISCOVERY to ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Although it doesn’t hit on as many levels as ETERNAL SUNSHINE, I appreciate the effort of trying to make a compelling film we haven’t seen before. The premise is ripe with storytelling ideas, and has so many avenues for exploration; so much so, I can see this more as a television show, a la THE LEFTOVERS, than a movie. It speaks to the strength of the concept that I wish there were more time to fully delve into the world. One particular aspect of the film I thought was interesting, yet underdeveloped, was the idea of a cult-like following developing around Dr. Harbor at his secluded compound. There is already so much going on in the film, this side plot ends up feeling forced.
Truthfully, this film is a bit hard to review due to spoilers and also because I feel you need to see it at least twice in order to really delve into all of the layers McDowell has pulsing through the film. In the Q&A, McDowell compared the threads in his story to that of ARRIVAL, where on first viewing you think one thing for a majority of the movie and then your viewpoint changes. Each time you watch THE DISCOVERY, I can imagine you are going to uncover more and more clues that will pay off at the end of the film. Get your critical thinking caps on… luckily for us, it is coming out on Netflix Streaming March 31st.
My review- B+