Dr. Thomas Harbor, portrayed by Oscar winner, Robert Redford (Ordinary People), has scientifically proven that an afterlife exists. He has discovered, that upon death, sub-atomic brain activity is present, and that it leaves the body. His next quest is to ascertain exactly where a person’s essence goes once they pass on. That still remains an enduring mystery. Since his findings, Thomas has been working on a new machine, that he hopes will be able to record the brain activity of the person who has died, in order to show what they experience once they move on. The discovery of the existence of life after death prompts an inordinate number of suicides by people for whom life has lost all purpose, as well as those, who have an obsessive need to know what awaits them in the afterlife. The consensus is, that whatever awaits them will be paradise compared to their current existence. Thomas attempts to quell the public’s mindset that suicide is a panacea. At the start of the film, he sits down for an interview with a television host, played by Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard). Unfortunately, a member of her crew takes his own life, as the interview is being conducted, a jarring gesture, which leads to Thomas becoming a recluse.
Neurosurgeon, Dr. Will Harbor, Thomas’s son, a role acted by Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother), is a skeptic. He objects to the fact that Thomas released the knowledge of the afterlife to the general public, due to the overwhelming number of suicides. He is traveling by ferry to Thomas’s estate located off of the coast of Rhode Island. While on board, he meets the only other passenger, the platinum blonde, Isla. She is an emotionally damaged woman, played by two time Oscar nominee, Rooney Mara (Carol). They banter back and forth for a bit, but separate once the ferry docks; it will not be the last they see of one another. In fact, a short time later, Will thwarts Isla’s plans of drowning herself in the ocean. He later learns, she was trying to kill herself, in order to be reunited in the afterlife, with her young son, who died in the same manner. After saving her life, he takes Isla back to his father’s estate; a place he has barely spent time at.
Before the incident at the beach, after disembarking from the ferry, Will’s disheveled, pot-smoking brother, Toby, played by Emmy nominee, Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights), picks him up, and takes him to see where his father has been living and conducting his experiments. The place is more than the average residence; it is a sprawling structure, on secluded, gated grounds, that occupy a number of acres of land. Thomas has spent his time in isolation, taking in people who have lost their way in life and have sought out his guidance. The residents of the estate wear jumpsuits, attend group meditation and lectures led by Thomas, and before even gaining entrance, need to go through an interview process. One such member, is Golden Globe nominee Riley Keough’s (The Girlfriend Experience) character, the sensitive and questioning, Lacey, who posits a question along the following lines: If people are committing suicide to get to a better place, won’t other individuals begin to justify taking another’s life, using the justification that they are merely sending them somewhere better; a place where they will eventually wind up anyway?
At first the new machine Thomas has constructed appears to be a failure. After the initial experiment, Thomas, Jesse and one of Thomas’s followers, Cooper (Ron Canada), leave the room, while Will stays behind. As Will begins to disconnect the wiring from the machinery to the recording equipment, he discovers something has in fact recorded. He isn’t entirely sure what exactly his father’s equipment has documented, but images coupled with sound are present on the screen. Will, ever the skeptic, is still not convinced that what he is watching is taking place in another plane of existence. Instead, he speculates, that what has been recorded, are the memories of the deceased person. He shares what he has learned with Isla, and the two set out to unravel the mystery.
Do the images that were recorded further validate Thomas’s findings? Has Will been right all along? Does some brain activity continue after death, but it is only a person’s memories, and not another place they are transported to? How far will Thomas take his experimentation? If you’ve read enough of my posts from the past, you’ll know, that I normally inform the reader, that all the questions I pose will be answered by the film’s conclusion. I can’t make that statement with this particular film. The ending, I believe, has more to do with an individual viewer’s beliefs regarding death – the afterlife – and the existence of a heaven, which will help the viewer formulate an opinion as to what the ending represents.
“The Discovery” was directed by Charlie McDowell (The One I Love); additionally, he co-wrote the screenplay with Justin Lader. The 102 minute Netflix original, premiered on January 20, 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival. Parts drama, mystery, romance, sci-fi, and thriller, the film, does not execute any of its genres well; particularly the forced romantic storyline between Segal’s and Mara’s characters, who have zero on-screen chemistry. In general, while the film, can certainly be considered thought provoking, it doesn’t delve deep enough into any of its subject matter, and instead gives mere surface exploration of the high concepts it deals with. Interesting scenes take place on occasion, but nothing about the film is cohesive, or presented to viewers in a dramatic or compelling manner that takes hold of their attention, and doesn’t let it go. When I first learned about the film, and what it dealt with, I was intrigued. Unlike other offerings that have been created by Netflix that I very much enjoy amongst its diverse programming, series for example, such as “House of Cards” “Orange is the New Black,” and Stranger Things,” “The Discovery,“ for me at least, will be one time viewing.