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.