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Discovery, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Needs peer review."
2 stars

Charlie McDowell's "The One I Love" was a nifty little indie fantasy, albeit one that hand-waved viewers past the details of its high concept with such force that the breeze could knock a person over. His follow-up occupies the same sort of space but never quite manages the same thrill of mystery as his previous film; it winds up specifying too much and too little of what’s going on, not quite marooning a hard-working cast between these poles but only seldom letting them and the ideas that their characters are wrestling with display their full potential.

Like many movies of this sort, it winds up tying its big idea to a small human-scale story: Two years ago, Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) demonstrated, scientifically, that there was some sort of afterlife, an announcement that seems primarily to have been met by a sharp rise in the suicide rate as people try to “get there”. Two years and four million suicides later, Harbor’s son Will (Jason Segel) returns to the New England island where his family summered when he was young, where he meets up with brother Toby (Jesse Plemons) and finds that his father, a recluse for the past year and a half, has gathered a number of people left adrift by the discovery and continued his experiments, aiming to see just what this next phase of existence is, specifically. Isla (Rooney Mara), the only other passenger on the ferry when Will came over, winds up being a good fit for this group, obviously damaged and quickly working her way into the family’s inner circle.

I like the edge of cult-leader arrogance Robert Redford brings to the man who made the discovery; Thomas fits the part of the mad scientist consumed by his work for the past forty years and could easily become the clear villain of the piece, even if the movie is at heart a story about reconciliation and atonement. Redford is a natural fit for the intelligence and the guilt being grappled with, but it’s the moments when his ego takes charge and the viewer sees that this is a guy capable of recklessly upending the world that make the man interesting. It’s a property that doesn’t really have a complement in Jason Segel’s more principled, obviously angry son even though as a fellow scientist in the same field, Will is positioned to be Thomas’s foil; Segel aches well but does not project the charisma necessary to stand in opposition of Redford. It allows Jesse Plemons to give a more interesting performance as Toby - not brilliant but not stupid, his peacemaker has just the right sort of natural resentment as Thomas and Will talk over his head but need his feet-on-the-ground loyalty. Rooney Mara handles Isla nicely, though, making her feel a bit more well-rounded than the assistants/residents played by Riley Keough and Ron Canada when the character could easily be just a mixture of bitter and eccentric.

There’s a potentially rich stew of conflicts and resentments at play, with all of the characters damaged by suicide, guilt, and loneliness, but the fantasy element sometimes allows the stories to play as too basic. As much as there’s something grand about how tragedy has inspired Thomas to spend his life wrestling with the very concept of death as something tangible - it’s the Orpheus myth reconfigured for a modern, scientific world-view - the actual stories are tragic in a generic sense. What happened with Thomas’s wife and all of the other missing characters will undoubtedly motivate them in the abstract, but always seems like a sort of placeholder, not something that happened to individual people and as a result feels uniquely horrible, as opposed to another iteration of a story the audience has seen before. There’s some effect when they struggle with it, absolutely, but if there wasn’t The Other Thing, these stories would be tragic but not special.

And while this is the sort of movie where you’re probably not supposed to look too closely at its strange premise, that McDowell and co-writer Justin Lader find that the premise makes a great pitch but is trickier to handle when a story needs specifics can’t be ignored. For instance, the pseudoscience used to lay out the premise at the start of the film is just as easy to interpret as “the soul dissipates, lost forever” as “the soul goes somewhere”, and it often seems as though Thomas Harbor is the only person who did any of this work, before or since. The questions of whether he published, had grad students, or if there’s been independent confirmation and refinement of his findings in the past two years is maybe not important to the story being told, but if those questions occur to a viewer, they probably set up a more interesting story than the one he or she gets. Lots of details don’t seem thought through - the suicide numbers, for instance, are given no context in comparison to pre-discovery numbers (if they’re global numbers, they’re about twice real-world estimates; if they just represent the United States, they’re much more alarming), and it seems awful unlikely that the discovery has not been used as a homicide justification yet, though the dialog suggests that is the case. There's a patness to the way everything is handled that feels unambitious at best, and when it does show ambition, the jumping to conclusions had me wishing for the horror knock-off version of what they came up with, because that would have some actual drama.

To be fair, the film doesn’t feel quite so frustrating while it’s playing out; a good cast covers a lot of sins, and the general atmosphere which connects a summer spot seen during the off-season with a world where prior assumptions no longer apply resonates. But when it’s done and so little of the potential of its big idea is met, it falls apart, because the details that would make this interesting as either a look at grief or spiritual science fiction just aren’t there.

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originally posted: 03/25/17 04:56:12
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User Comments

8/23/17 danR Subject-matter notwithstanding, the tone was so uniformly depressing, I quit at 20 minutes. 2 stars
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