The writer and director Charlie McDowell, whose new film The Discovery is released on Netflix Friday, specializes in an emerging genre. Call it sci-fi mumblecore or lo-fi sci-fi: smaller indie films that explore the kind of mind-bending, technology-focused, and often deeply philosophical themes usually reserved for movies that operate on a grander scale. McDowell belongs in the conversation with directors like Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color) and Mike Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins), who have worked miracles with limited budgets and character-focused storytelling.
But though McDowell’s ambitions are often impressive, he’s struggled to translate his high-concept visions into coherent, complete stories, to fully realize the vast potential of his ideas. As with his debut feature The One I Love (2014), The Discovery poses a fascinating existential question to its audience, but doesn’t quite manage to fill in a plot around it. The often dour new film frequently gets bogged down in clunky exposition and fails to develop its more compelling elements over a 102-minute running time.
The Discovery is set in a near future where science has conclusively proven the existence of an afterlife. It’s an engrossing premise, but one the movie takes ages to establish. In early scenes, as Will Harbor (Jason Segel) takes an island ferry to visit his father, McDowell nails the atmosphere of this haunted world. Everything seems gray and eerily desolate, and there’s only one other person aboard the vessel with Will—the mysterious Isla (Rooney Mara), who exists mainly to both drive the plot forward and help lay out the parameters of an afterlife-aware world.
Through Isla’s conversations with Will (along with some overheard news broadcasts), we gather that society is deteriorating ever since this grand revelation, with many people opting to kill themselves to get to whatever comes next. A cancer diagnosis is greeted with delight, and there are advertisements papered everywhere pleading with citizens not to take their own lives. In The Discovery’s vision of the future, the world is ugly enough that it has to try and literally sell itself to its inhabitants; it’s an effective nightmare, and McDowell, with the help of Segel and Mara’s muted performances, does well to emphasize the doom and gloom.
Will and Isla eventually reach an island where Will’s father, Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) is doing further experiments and tending to a sad, cult-like community of people affected by suicide. Thomas is the scientist who made the titular discovery and is trying to dig deeper to figure out precisely where humans go after they die. His work involves hooking the dying and dead up to intricate nests of wire and probing their brains for glimpses of the beyond. Thomas is at least outwardly unperturbed by the widespread consequences of his research, but Will (and, it seems, McDowell) is looking to hold him accountable for the world he’s helped engender, while also delving into his new findings.
There’s a vague plot hook to the brain-scanning (which Will and Isla begin to dabble with themselves) and a quasi-mystery to solve, but little else in The Discovery beyond characters poring over the nominal, obvious issues of Thomas’s work. When McDowell’s characters discuss his heady concepts, they don’t quite feel like real people. Their circular discussions about the meaning of life feature the kinds of points and counter-points that might be bandied around in a philosophy seminar—and McDowell never manages to make these scenes feel truly engaging.
As a result, much of The Discovery feels stuck in the pitch stage, introducing viewers to the world it’s trying to create, without giving them much to be invested in past the idea of a provable afterlife. The One I Love, McDowell’s equally intriguing first feature, was a surreal fantasy that turned couples therapy into a bizarre cloning experiment, in which a troubled husband and wife meet idealized doppelgängers of themselves. But that film, too, suffered from a similar shallowness.
McDowell remains a talent to watch, and he’s attracted terrific casts to his movie (Segel, Mara, and Redford all do solid, if subdued jobs here), but his science-fiction genius needs to extend beyond a cool premise. By the end of The Discovery, the film finally feels like it’s starting to go somewhere, opening up more complex lines of inquiry. But then it just ends, leaving a bunch of dangling questions for the viewer to untangle. Such ambiguity can be useful, even crucial, in sci-fi—but it’s an open-endedness that The Discovery doesn’t quite earn.