Director: Charlie McDowell
Writers: Justin Lader, Charlie McDowell
Release date: 31 March, 2017
Back in March 2017, I somehow missed a British-American science fiction movie starring Rooney Mara, Jason Segel and Robert Redford embedded amongst the flurry of Netflix Originals.
Do not read into this as sarcasm or a statement of jest; The Discovery should have been the sequel to Flatliners (1990), or what the pathetic sequel of the same name Flatliners (2017) should have been.
Wait, what are you talking about?
The Discovery is a sorry story about a world gripped by a new scientific theory that verifies that the afterlife exists. The theory does not demonstrate what the afterlife entails but scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) has dangerously proven that energy flows out of the body and goes somewhere when you die. The human reaction is a tragic case of four million people committing suicide to get “there”. No-one knows where “there” is, which makes the suicides even more harrowing. The movie opens up with the scientist getting interviewed and he is asked the important question: do you feel guilty? The premise then moves to his son Will (Jason Segel), travelling on a ferry where he meets Isla (Rooney Mara). Will is saddened by the mass suicides whilst Isla thinks it is an easy way out.
This apparent post-dystopian life is essentially the world we would have witnessed if Flatliners actually made discoveries that ran smoothly and consequently got shared to the outside world.
It sounds like you are clutching at straws a little.
I’m really not. Most of the story is told in Thomas’s mansion, where you learn that he runs an absurd cult that follows his theories religiously. Further experiments take place and lo and behold the test subjects flatline. The components are fundamentally the same, however, The Discovery is a movie so enriched to a level way deeper than other similar films that it actually impressed to some extent. It is a movie that delves into the actions and consequences of humans acting like they are God; the curiosity of wanting to understand the unknown results in millions of deaths, and the point is made several times that no-one really knows what the afterlife is. Would it even be a place we would want to inhabit?
Why did The Discovery impress?
The film is not just a cool science-fiction story. The Discovery confines itself to two opposing characters; Will is the one who is resistant to expanding on the theory, and his father is as determined as ever to prove where humans actually go when they die. With conflicting interests, the film encourages you to think of the situation. How would you feel in a world like this one? You are ultimately faced with the sadness of four million suicides and not really knowing what it means.
Well, what does it mean?
The Discovery does have a vital twist, so going any further will breach the spoiler-free rule, but the crux of the story is the relationship of Will and Isla. Both characters are important. There is a romance sold to the audience, however, they both hold conflicting beliefs and you witness them both doubting themselves. Will is adamant that it is irresponsible to delve into the afterlife experiments any further because it hurts those who are mentally vulnerable. Isla wants to believe that leaving this world will have a positive outcome, but is drawn to Will’s principles, which are slowly but surely dissipating. My only problem is Jason Segel. He is the wrong casting choice.
Okay, a little harsh?
The Discovery does display dry humour at various moments, which works to a certain extent because we are approaching a dismal world caught upon whether we should live or not. Jason Segel is rather good in these moments, especially when he is talking to his brother, who appears to have fallen into the traps of this cult. Jason and Rooney Mara do not work. Despite knowing that their two characters have some kind of unspoken attraction, in the scenario they are in, it does not feel convincing. Perhaps part of the blame goes down to how it is written, however, some of it should be apportioned to casting Jason. His persona, style and approach to romance do not chemically match with the actress.
Rooney is not the problem, as this type of role fits her perfectly. What you really have is a well-crafted American Sci-Fi that tries to sell you a romantic story. Although pertinent to the plot, I was left feeling unconvinced.
Is it still worth watching?
Despite my criticism, I did enjoy what this movie stands for. There is a real effort to deliver a story that puts forward the question on principles of scientific discovery. It is ridiculously quirky in some places that allow you to stay engaged. I just wish the performances felt more impactful. The twist is good, but even that felt empty by the time it came to surface.
If you come across it, yes. If you really like movies that place serious questions on scientific developments then go for it. Do not expect to be blown away.
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Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.