The Discovery would be a wasted effort without its last 20 minutes and its unique casting.
Director and co-writer Charlie McDowell pulls pieces (down to casting the underrated Jesse Plemons and giving his female lead an attractive aloofness and imperfect dye job) from P.T.A.’s The Master, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, and Charlie Kauffman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, three great films that concern themselves with existentialism, but he doesn’t come close to their accomplishments. He’s too preoccupied with the basics of investigation, showing his work, instead of getting to what’s interesting. At least he doesn’t waste time on explaining machinery and science. For a movie that already wastes time, and ironically, focuses on what to do with the time given to you, I’m certain it would be a bore.
The Discovery seems like a lot but isn’t much. On paper, the premise is enticing. A renowned scientist, Thomas Harper (Robert Redford), discovers enough proof to convince the general public that there’s a second plane of existence, possibly reachable through death, and causes an alarming spike in suicides, to the point that there are public tickers keeping track of the death toll.
In the time since, Harper’s holed himself up at a castle and created what looks and seems like a cult of workers as he attempts to create definitive proof of a second plane, presumably so he can alleviate the guilt he feels (though denies) for deaths that may be in vain.
Jason Segal plays his son, Will Harper, who on a ferry to his father’s place meets Isla (Rooney Mara). He later saves her after seeing her on the beach trying to commit suicide (couldn’t she have committed suicide on the ferry? On the beach where the ferry docked? Why this island?), and she ultimately accompanies him.
Segal doesn’t have the range to satisfy his character’s arc, but that’s easy to overlook when he’s just the audience surrogate, and this plot could just as easily happen with a totally different type of person — even his backstory seems to relate more to his family members than to him. Jesse Plemons plays Will’s brother, the son who stayed and helped with experiments. Plemons is becoming so great an actor comparisons to Philip Seymour Hoffman will soon become less about his appearance and more about his skill. By virtue of his modern, warts and all depictions of his characters, and fearlessness of seemingly improvised style of speech and actions, he elevates his character from the brother stereotype he certainly is to someone memorable. On paper he doesn’t even really have an arc. Nor does Rooney Mara.
This is a film without a lot of sci-fi holes, thanks to a lack of explanation in the first place, but science isn’t its problem. Its problems are more fundamental to this type of film (a mostly character-based film): contrived character meetings and character motivations changed to suit where the story goes instead of what makes sense to the actual character. The Discovery’s emotional payoff comes from what a character means to another, and whether or not a life filled with mistakes is really worth living, which again, put simply, are interesting concepts worthy of a movie — I’m just certain that a movie filled with the mistakes The Discovery makes is not worth watching.
Is it good Netflix is trying different things out, and putting together admittedly remarkable casts? Yes. Do they need to improve? Yes and no. There are enough thought-provoking elements and smart decisions involved in The Discovery that makes me believe Gambling on Weird is good, even if to win a few you have to lose a few first, and Netflix has, if not the money, the popularity to play the game for a while.