By Raphael Beretta
It has been two years to the day since Dr. Thomas Harbor has scientifically proven the existence of an afterlife. Millions of people are killing themselves in order to simply “get there”. How should you react?
This is the intriguing concept proposed by The Discovery, a Netflix original film directed by Charlie McDowell. The film started streaming on March 31, and stars Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons and Robert Redford as the aforementioned scientist.
Jason Segel plays Will Harbor, the son of Thomas Harbor. Will is a neurologist that is heavily skeptical of the merits of the “discovery”. He meets Isla (Mara), and the two have an informal debate on the suicides: Will believes the scientific breakthrough is unjustly contributing to suicide, while Isla believes it has become a guaranteed easy way out. Their awkward encounters grow into a budding romance throughout the film, as a light backdrop against the dark and morbid discussions of the ethics of exploring the afterlife.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Robert Redford, who demonstrates in his role as brilliant scientist, emerging cult leader and philosophical pioneer, proving why he is among Hollywood’s greats. Jesse Plemons plays Toby, the rugged and more untamed brother of Will, who possesses more competence and intelligence than is always apparent. These two carry the film in terms of intrigue and heart, as the soulless chemistry between Segel and Mara gives the audience little to be attached to.
The lackluster performance of Segel and pitiful performance of Mara are not entirely their fault. The writing for their dialogue is glaringly unbelievable, which is surprising because of how well the outlandish concept is written. The cold open of the film is poignant and harrowing, attacking the concept head-on. If the rest of the film had been as intense yet grounded in its exploration of the topic, it would have been an artistic success.
The tone of the first 90 percent of the film greatly differed from the last 10 percent. I will not spoil the ending, but The Discovery jarringly transitions from gritty, realistic science fiction with philosophical undertones to science fantasy with a twist from the demented offspring of M. Night Shyamalan and Christopher Nolan (which could be awesome, but trust me, it’s not.)
The film had several chances to explore fascinating and unique plot routes, but chose instead to go down a road too-often traveled and taking a sharp U-turn in the process. The film never builds on its initial intrigue and only depresses the audience in the process. Netflix is choosing more and more frequently to fund these original products rather than putting money into the reason most people bought Netflix in the first place: pre-existing properties. Amazon is leading the original-film race with Manchester by the Sea taking home several Oscars this past year. HBO GO has retained their mega-hit original series and Hulu is catching up with acquiring the rights to hit series such as Seinfeld and Fargo. Netflix has the rights to Scorsese’s next film The Irishman, starring Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci. But if they aren’t careful, the rest of their competitors could overtake them.