Originally published Apr. 12th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
Sometimes you’re left with no option but to walk out of a film and not be entirely sure where you stand on it. It’s a lot easier to find an appealing argument to side with if the film was a little less ambitious, but if it’s a film that’s promised and somewhat delivered on a cerebral experience, that search for a definitive opinion gets a little more difficult. On some level, we should always praise films that try to make us think, especially considering the blockbuster formula we condition ourselves to every trip we make to the box office.
On the other hand, the project’s logic has to be air tight, lest the audience’s intellectualism catch onto one loose thread that threatens entire material’s stability. Nonetheless, no matter how the films are received, normal audiences ought to give them a fair shake, and distribution companies equally ought to provide these films so viewers may have that opportunity. So, whichever side of the spectrum you fall on The Discovery, a week and a half after it became available for streaming, please put your hands together for Netflix.
Netflix acquiring the global rights over half a year before The Discovery made its premiere at Sundance – or even taking a chance on it at all – is decent proof, in this reviewer’s opinion, that this current decade of filmmaking is about as close to another ‘golden age of American cinema’ as we have come since the ‘70s. It proves that the Millennial audience is a peculiar one, as well. Yes, we love our traditional blockbusters and franchises, and studios have responded in kind, providing them by the ladle-ful. Companies like Netflix and A24, however, have shown that we want more artistic and rigorous films, as well.
Filmmakers Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader certainly aren’t strangers to challenging pictures, either. Their Charlie Kaufman-inspired sci-fi romantic comedy The One I Love was a mind-bending and lovingly strange experience whose premise was simple, but ingenious, and it was executed to a tee. The Discovery sees the pair treading into deeper waters, though to what effect is up to your tastes.
It’s the near future, and renowned scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) has arguably made the greatest discovery of humankind’s history: the definitive existence of an afterlife. Unfortunately, this announcement is the beginning of mass global suicides by people who now know they can start over. When Thomas’s disapproving son, Will (Jason Segal), comes back home to visit, he and the troubled woman he falls for, Isla (Rooney Mara), help uncover a hidden truth not even his father could have prepared for.
Elucidating any more than that would threaten to spoil the viewing experience, but what can be said is that McDowell and Lader, in spite of the different angle they take, are plunging into some thematic territory similar to their previous film, though it’s fascinating to watch them dive deeper than they had before. And while that return isn’t inherently a negative, as some of the best filmmakers have explored the same issues in a variety of manners over their careers, it’s the familiarity that leaves a little to be desired, leaving it to the picture’s execution to carry it through.
Though some sections of The Discovery indicate workmanlike direction and storytelling, others feel more pedestrian. Lader and McDowell’s material – it was just Lader who did the writing for The One I Love – is expectedly dense, and it develops like an out of the ordinary mystery thriller, leading the scent down one path or another while it jerks you into an entirely different direction. Lackluster pacing, however, often threatens to derail total engagement, in conjunction with a bizarre tonal scramble, with its frequent philosophizing on humankind’s relationship to time and death.
The characters are a curious oddity, as well, in both a positive and negative sense. Paradoxically, for instance, Segal’s Will is a strong central protagonist because his motivations are never truly made clear, as it keeps the material’s detective aspects, arguably part of its beating heart, more enticing and the final act’s eventual revelations further mesmerizing. At the same time, his character’s progression influences an oft-seen ‘doubter becomes believer’ narrative that slightly offsets the premise’s creativity. Other characters, such as Mara’s Isla, though well-performed, still embody an archetype, which seems the antithesis of films that attempt to separate themselves by forcing the audience to give their minds an intellectual workout session.
And then there’s the ending, which will surely divide opinion once more people decide to hit the play button. It’s an unseen conclusion, for sure, and seems an attempt to equal the emotional impact of The One I Love’s final sequence, though for some it may feel too out of left field, which isn’t to say they didn’t have their thinking caps on throughout the picture. It’s a twist that’s generated out of nothing, but others may find its inorganic conception appealing. If anything is certain, it keeps those neurons firing and questions originating, which is the spirit of such filmmaking in the first place.
Personally, as alluded to previously, The Discovery is simply one of those films where I have no complete idea as to how I feel. The material’s ambitiousness is noteworthy, and thematically it relentlessly keeps digging for gold, but sometimes at the expense of fluid storytelling and compelling characters. I’m still not entirely sure what rating to give, but considering critics are beholden to them, a simple 3.5 is closest to how I currently feel. How do you?