by Seamus MulhernThe Discovery had a sick trailer. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.
Everything about it was so immediately engaging. The drab, yet slick visuals. The unsettling change in tone that occurs halfway through. The infectious Shane Carruth vibes. It even nails the “slowed-down scary pop song” cliche that comes up in every other trailer nowadays by choosing a song that could easily be reinterpreted as a sinister anthem (“Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison).
It also has an engaging concept. “What if we were able to prove that the afterlife exists?” That question alone provides so many storytelling possibilities. It’s an idea that would deliver a standout episode of any given science-fiction anthology series, let alone a feature film.
So, yeah, taking all of this into account, the movie’s kind of a mess.
Granted, the film fails in spite of multiple positive qualities. For starters, the cast. Jason Segel follows his brilliant, heartbreaking performance in The End of the Tour as Will, a neurologist who bears witness to the world falling apart around him one year after his father (Robert Redford), discovers the existence of an afterlife. While visiting his family, he falls in love with the suicidal Isla (Rooney Mara). While each performance is adequate in its own way, Jesse Plemons, known for his standout roles in Friday Night Lights and Fargo, steals the show as Will’s brother, Toby. His creepy appearance, combined with his genuine, heartwarming “good guy” demeanor, creates a presence that is just a joy to experience.
It’s a shame that all writer-director Charlie McDowell has for them is a script that’s heavily derivative of other (better) provocative films. The Discovery wears its influences on its sleeve, but not in an endearing way. The opening brings to mind Children of Men. The cultish imagery and presence of Plemons recalls The Master. However, no film is borrowed from more than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The motif of beaches, the awkward male protagonist, the mysterious love interest and the mind bending sequences all evoke the similar spirit of Michel Gondry’s classic. At its worst, there are scenes that feel directly lifted from Eternal Sunshine. This would be fine in some cases (Eternal Sunshine is a masterpiece of the genre and you’d be hard-pressed to find a modern filmmaker who wasn’t influenced by it). Unfortunately, McDowell doesn’t provide much else for the audience to chew on.
And while the film is filled to the brim with great actors, the problem is how these actors interact with each other. In particular, Jason Segel and Rooney Mara have no chemistry, which, one would think, is important in a film revolving around their romance. In Eternal Sunshine, the relationship is believable and both characters seem to be getting something out of it; Joel (Jim Carrey) feels a sense of adventure with Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel makes Clementine feel more adult. However, in The Discovery, Will and Isla’s love fails to convince. It wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the film didn’t depend on the audience being invested as much as it does.
When all is said and done, the worst crime committed by The Discovery is its emptiness. It introduces themes like depression, loss, suicide, and love, but it doesn’t have anything to say about those topics. It hints at political commentary throughout, but remains just vague enough to where it doesn’t actually make any statements. While the initial concept continues to pull us in and suggest something greater, the film fails to deliver. The Discovery is a painfully average film, but it wouldn’t hurt so much if it didn’t keep trying to convince us that it was something more.
2.5 out of 5 stars