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Sundance Film Review: ‘The Discovery’

Variety logo Variety 1/21/2017 Dennis Harvey
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Following up their delightfully original debut “The One I Love” with a less playful piece of speculative fiction, writer-director Charlie McDowell and co-scenarist Justin Lader suggest the unexpected, even disastrous consequences that might arise if mankind were to receive definitive proof that there is an afterlife. Though “The Discovery” starts out with a great premise, its mystery dissipates over a somewhat tepid course as the concept ultimately heads in a direction we’ve seen many times before, and depends overmuch on chemistry that fails to materialize between stars Jason Segel and Rooney Mara. Netflix is releasing the film both to theaters and streaming on March 31; response is likely to be muted.

Long estranged from his father for reasons that emerge later on, neurologist Will (Segel) is nonetheless visiting him now, at a time when the latter has retreated from enormous public controversy. Two years earlier, Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) invented a device that was able to record subatomic wavelengths exiting a human body upon death — thus proving there is “something” after this mortal coil.

Though Harbor prefers to call it simply a separate “plane of existence,” but much of the globe’s populace preferred to think this afterlife-by-any-other-name must be Heaven, or at least better than Earthly life. What Harbor couldn’t have anticipated is that more than one million people would kill themselves to “get there” quicker within six months of his discovery — making for a startling opening scene in which his grudging session with a TV interviewer (a cameo by McDowell’s mother Mary Steenburgen) is interrupted by another suicide, forcing Harbor into deep seclusion.

Now it’s 18 months on, and Will is breaking his familial silence to beg dad to “stop” the societal madness by discrediting his own research. Thomas and Will’s antic younger sibling Toby (Jesse Plemons) now live behind the locked gates of a huge, almost palatial former juvenile facility off the New England coast, where they’re surrounded by a motley crew of staff-cum-acolytes-cum-patients whom Will regards with skeptical distaste as a sort of cult.

Ever the obsessively focused workaholic, however, the famous neuroscientist wouldn’t dream of publicly decrying his own work. In fact, he’s going further with it — trying to create the technological means of exploring just what the nature is of whatever awaits us on the other side. Will is reluctantly dragged into helping with these new experiments, joining assistant Toby as well as eccentric chief followers Lacey (Riley Keough) and Cooper (Ron Canada). There’s also the addition of newcomer Isla (Mara), an attractive but brusque young woman Will happens to meet on the ferry over, and whom circumstances soon turn into yet another of the compound’s psychologically damaged, precariously healing wards.

Echoing some of the recent films by Jeff Nichols, as well as Mike Cahill, Brit Marling, and Zal Batmanglij, “The Discovery” is a serious-minded, human-scaled treatment of notions that might ordinarily lead toward straight horror or sci-fi material. But as with some of their movies, this one is better at building intrigue than rewarding it. In fact, things get less interesting rather quickly, as promisingly thorny characters (notably Redford’s) fail to develop very satisfactorily. And once the seemingly failed new experiments (first practiced upon a fresh corpse stolen from a local morgue) actually reveal something murkily significant after all, Segel goes on a dullish sleuthing chase that lands in terrain familiar from the cinema of Christopher Nolan, not to mention umpteen gimmicky movies involving time-travel.

“The Discovery’s” solemnity doesn’t render those later turns any less fundamentally sentimental, and a touch banal. Nor does the script’s poker face completely mask the stock central device of hinging the narrative on a slow-burning romance between two sad souls who are meant for each other. At least we’re meant to think so, though in truth, mopey Will and abrasive Isla don’t seem much of a match — or even terribly interesting as individuals, though the actors try their best. (Among the other cast members, Plemons fares best, his Toby lending a few prankish notes the film sorely needs.)

The result is watchable enough, but never half as suspenseful or emotionally involving as it hopes to be. Stylistically it also falls a little short, with competence but not much character to Norwegian DP (“Rams”) Sturla Brandth Grovien’s widescreen lensing or the other visual design contributions. Like “The Discovery” as a whole, the original score credited to Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans seems like a collection of variably interesting ideas that don’t quite hang together.

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