***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
A scientist named Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) discovers that there is an afterlife. This leads to millions of people committing suicide, hoping for a better life. One year on from the discovery, Thomas and his son Toby (Jesse Plemons) have set up a hospital to give those at risk a reason to live, but all is not as it seems. Thomas and his employees are soon joined by Thomas’ other son, Will (Jason Segel), a neurologist, who brings a young woman named Isla (Rooney Mara) to the hospital, and the two soon make a discovery all their own.
I think we can all readily admit that Netflix has not had a good run of original movies. While The Discovery is not its worst output, it’s still not a great film, and because it has this unique, original (albeit very dark) idea at its centre, which could have been taken in a variety of interesting directions (the first teaser for the feature hinted at a dark comic tone but this is far from the case), what one comes out with after watching it is a sense of missed opportunity.
At first, given the subject matter, The Discovery appears akin to Netflix series like The OA or 13 Reasons Why. However, The OA takes a different angle on the topic of death, looking at near-death experiences, or indeed coming back from the dead, while 13 Reasons Why is definitively geared towards a young adult audience. The Discovery, in the end, doesn’t really have anything new or compelling to say on life and death, and ends up relying on the romantic plot to deliver its, frankly, nonsense ending.
Mind you, all the acting here is capable and worthy because the film has lined up a terrific cast. Redford is the most interesting to watch while the quirky, opinionated but unfeeling Isla is a good fit for Mara. Segel is surprisingly compelling for his quiet and cautious but curious character of Will, but a lot of this is owing to the charm of Segel himself. Plemons, meanwhile, is underused.
One gets the sense that The Discovery is trying to be profound but it never really rings true and the final twist is a mess. It has some strengths including an immersive music and sound design, and intriguing moments, such as Redford’s one-on-one conversations with Mary Steenburgen in the opening scene, and a later one with Mara which reverses the interviewer-interviewee positions. The experiments carried out by Thomas and his scientists at the hospital are also alluringly designed, and they lead to a mystery plotline that does invest the audience. But then there is that very silly ending. Shame.