For its constant stranglehold on almost everything that some of us do, the concept of the afterlife has received very little attention as the basis for compelling fiction, and when it is addressed, often times rather clumsily (Lost, anybody?) it’s usually executed poorly. A somewhat unlikely team to tackle this material, with a sci fi bent of all things, would be rookie director Charlie McDowell and Apatow vet Jason Segel, but perhaps the black humor at the heart of the subject matter is what affords the minds behind The Discovery the offbeat approach that renders it such a devastating meditation on the nature of hopelessness and regret.
When definitive proof of the afterlife drives over four million people to take their own lives, the doctor (acting legend Robert Redford) who made said discovery goes into hiding after a crew member’s onscreen suicide during his last and only TV interview. With news of further advancements in Redford’s research, his estranged son (Segel) comes back into the fold, if only to satisfy his own demons regarding his mother’s tragic, self-inflicted passing. But when the true nature and ramifications of his father’s work come to light against the backdrop of a doomed romance with fellow lost soul Rooney Mara, Segel won’t just have to question his own mortality, but the very fabric of existence itself.
A Kubrickian sense of dread permeates every frame of The Discovery before we’re even made fully aware of how bleak the film’s world is. McDowell and co-writer Justin Lader nail that sort-of Philip K. Dick-esque nightmarish, nihilistic, outpost-at-the-end-of-the-world-vibe necessary of high concept sci fi while not neglecting to make their characters realistic, relatable and sympathetic. A few acting ringers in the cast, Redford, Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons, but especially Rooney Mara, who completely disappears into the role of troubled love interest Isla, make it easy to sink into the film’s depressive milieu.
Segel shines at the film’s center, though not quite as brightly as he did in The End of the Tour. He’s given a lot less to work with here though as the Everyman POV character amidst the chaos of a slowly dying world, and his subdued performance speaks volumes to the type of survivor’s guilt and detached malaise one would experience in his position.
If I had one complaint about The Discovery it would be that we’re never really told exactly how Redford’s character came upon his titular Discovery, or how he managed to prove it unequivocally enough to compel so many people to want to “go there”. I couldn’t decide for myself if this was clever or lazy, but just like the interpretation of what really may be waiting for us after death, I’ll ultimately leave that up to you. The Discovery serves as a scientific and cerebral take on The Leftovers’ more heartfelt struggle for survival in a social apocalypse, and is definitely worth a look. Jean Paul Sartre may have been right that hell is other people, but perhaps the true hell is for those that the other people leave behind.
The Discovery is available worldwide on Netflix starting March 31st.