Synopsis: A love story set two years after the existence of the afterlife is scientifically verified. (Source)
The Discovery is one of the most original films you’ll see all year. Directed and co-written by Charlie McDowell, the story imagines a world where the afterlife has been confirmed scientifically, shocking millions who are unable to cope with such a towering revelation. Though the story naturally delves into death, McDowell uses his brilliant premise as a way of exploring life, specifically the parts of it we’re afraid to confront until it’s too late. Blending unexpected laughs with poignancy, this is smart, high-concept sci-fi, exploring a world that is foreign but all too real in terms of emotion and philosophical quandary. Stars Jason Segel and Rooney Mara anchor a killer ensemble, and by the time that final frame hits, you’ll have been swept away by a tide of beauty, sadness and hope.
The story begins in earnest, on the two year anniversary of the monumental discovery. After learning that death is potentially not the end, the global suicide rate has skyrocketed, with a significant portion of its population offing themselves to “get there”, despite not being sure of what or where that is. One of the few left behind, is Will (Jason Segel), a neurosurgeon who doesn’t believe the scientific facts behind the discovery to be definitive. When the film begins, he’s off to visit his father, Thomas (Robert Redford), the scientist who shared his findings with a jilted world. Will wants his father to refute his claims so that the world, as it is, can heal and focus on the living. On the way to his reclusive father’s mansion, Will meets a stray woman named Isla (Rooney Mara), herself going through some struggles, and the pair forge a unique kinship as the world crumbles around them.
Needless to say, with this ambitious premise, McDowell is telling a huge story with sobering intimacy. Most of the film’s fun is how McDowell’s brings his foreign world to life, a world in which death’s sting has new meaning, and those who haven’t taken their life yet have grown numb to losing those they love. By focusing on one of life’s most burning questions, a picture begins to form of what is lost when we’re busy chasing what we can never truly know. Still, McDowell finds humor through eccentricity, never betraying the weight of his story, but allowing it to find humanity through a contrast of warmth and grim reality. Ultimately, McDowell is using an elaborate fantasy to tell a simple truth, that it’s the small things that matter in the end, weighing down on us for better or worse, in ways we can’t imagine.
There’s a colorful cast of characters at the film’s disposal, but a handful of standouts. As Will, Jason Segel is our entry point, a contrarian who brings a skeptic’s eye to the unfathomable. There’s genuine warmth, loneliness and sincerity to what Segel brings, and we not only relate, but are fascinated by what he has to say. As Isla, Rooney Mara is deafeningly understated. Mara’s character is going through a lot, but she gives the character a clarity and strength that are the film’s anchor. As Thomas, Robert Redford turns in a character with a giant burden. After telling the world something it wasn’t ready for, Redford’s Thomas is in a singular position, and is someone who is holding in much more pain/anger than they let on. Only Redford could play this role as masterfully as he does, and the film benefits from it. Jesse Plemons’ Toby is another indispensable part of the film, turning in a pragmatic character with a wit that prevents things from becoming too dark.
If there’s a minor fault to the film, it’s that McDowell tends to tell us too much in the final act, yet manages to stay surface on some of the story’s most piercing themes. For a film steeped in radiant mystery, much of its mystique is lost when the pieces come together a bit too neatly, rushing together for that definitive conclusion. This isn’t a deal breaker however, as there’s never a dull moment and McDowell poses a bevy of questions that really resonate. The Discovery is beautiful and human, a look at the flaws that make us who we are, and a hope that’s undimmed in the face of death.