Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Discovery (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) has made a world-changing discovery: He has found scientific proof that there is life after death. In the midst of an increased suicide rate in reaction to this news, he has begun further tests to see if he can see this afterlife for himself. Meanwhile, his son Will (Jason Segel) and his new friend Isla (Rooney Mara) have been brought into the facility where Thomas is doing his experiments, and it seems that Thomas is on the brink of a whole new discovery.

It’s definitely good to see Segel take on some more dramatic work, and while he does well enough with his very troubled character, he ends up being a little too placid to really work as our leading man. Mara does a lot better overall, managing to get a lot out of the incredibly morbid character. I should bring up here that, regardless of their individual performances, have next to no chemistry on-screen. Considering an unnecessary amount of the film is dedicated to their budding romance, that’s not a good sign. Jesse Plemons as Segel’s brother is a decent fit, and their scenes together are honestly the only ones where any kind of familial bond makes itself known. Redford as the scientist behind the titular Discovery definitely nails the inquisitive risk taker that the role requires, but in his scenes with Segel and Plemons, he feels too cold to that character connection to exist beyond the script.
Ron Canada is okay as one of Thomas’ assistants, Mary Steenburgen leaves a good impact in her initial scene as an interviewer, but the best performance here absolutely has to go to Riley Keough as Lacey. Not only does she seem to be the most comfortable in dealing with her character’s psychology, her presence in the film shows a very clear and direct mindset attached to the fallout of the Discovery. As troubling as her efficacy might be, she does extremely well at getting across this rather psychotic perspective on a world where death has completely changed its meaning as humanity knows it.

It’s rare that a singular idea at the heart of a film is this instantly compelling, and what’s more, it takes a rather familiar sci-fi trope and takes it even further. Films like Flatliners and The Lazarus Project end up posing questions about the existence of an afterlife, but a film like this, where there is definitive evidence of an afterlife, feels like a story that is worth telling. As we see more of the world, and how it reacts to the Discovery, we get the kind of sci-fi world-building that we haven’t gotten much of this year. The very concept itself involves basically rewriting how people understand reality, given that death is a rather inherent part of the human condition.

But the really remarkable thing about this is that, because the film proposes scientific proof as opposed to belief, theism doesn’t end up playing much of a direct role in the narrative. Rather than delving into theological implications, it sticks to the practical applications of such knowledge… and those applications are quite unsettling. With this new information forcing humanity to reconsider what a human life is worth, since another chance is pretty much guaranteed by the Discovery, it brings up notions of suicide and compassion for others and twists them until their heads fall off. As much as part of me is slightly worried by how casually suicide keeps being brought up in-story, and always in context to the Discovery without delving into any other reasons why someone would choose to end their life, it is an aspect of the story that would need to be explored in order for the main concept to stick.

However, there’s a major problem with that main concept: It’s not the only one we’re given. As the film goes on, we keep getting more and more high-concept ideas injected into the narrative, pondering ideas like alternate realities and literal recording of memories. Now, while some of these questions end up bringing the “definitive proof” of the Discovery under question, and in turn a lot of the in-universe reaction to it, that’s not the issue. The issue is that director/co-writer Charlie McDowell clearly had a lot of different ways to extrapolate that one idea into a feature-length production, but not the efficacy to make each individual idea blossom. It’s high-concept storytelling at its worst, where it feels like the filmmakers focused more on creating clutter within the narrative rather than effectively use what they have already.
As a result, we get a bunch of compelling ideas crammed in together so that none of them get the chance to breathe, ending up suffocating a lot of the character drama in the process. Unlike something like Rick & Morty, where the high-concept ideas are balanced out by an extremely tight narrative structure and a sense of pacing to make everything fit in the running time, this ends up going for quantity over quality. McDowell really should have pared things down, stuck to one or two main ideas and focusing on getting those right first, instead of what we got here.

All in all, this is a whole bunch of ideas that never manage to come to narrative fruition. The acting is rather bland, the visuals are all washed-out and dreary, which even for a story this bleak feels like it went too far, and while the writing deserves some credit for how imaginative and creative it can get with its concepts, it also deserves a lot of flak for ultimately wasting them through lack of focus.

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