Director – Charlie McDowell, Screenplay – Justin Lader & Charlie McDowell, Producers – Alex Orlovsky & James D. Stern, Photography – Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Music – Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans, Visual Effects – The Artery (Supervisor – Vico Sharabani), Special Effects Supervisor – John Ruggieri, Production Design – Akin McKenzie. Production Company – A-Lo Films.
Jason Segel (Will Stevenson), Robert Redford (Dr Thomas Harper), Rooney Mara (Isla), Jesse Plemons (Toby Harper), Ron Canada (Cooper), Riley Keough (Lacey), Mary Steenburgen (Interviewer)
Dr Thomas Harper finds scientific proof of the existence of an afterlife. The reclusive Harper is persuaded to make a tv interview where he is questioned about his responsibility in the sudden peak in suicides that have followed this. He says he feels no blame, only for someone to shoot themselves on air right before him. Two years later, on the anniversary of The Discovery, Will Stevenson catches the ferry over to an island. Along the way, he meets fellow passenger Isla. The island is where Thomas runs a research institute. Thomas is Will’s father but the two have become estranged with Will holding Thomas responsible for his mother’s suicide. Will then sees Isla about to drown herself on the beach and dives in to save her. Thomas then unveils his new discovery – they have found the means to be able to record what people see when they pass into the afterlife. However, as they begin experiments, Will is not certain that what they record is the afterlife after all.
The Discovery was the second film from director-writer Charlie McDowell who had previously had a word-of-mouth hit with the strange doppelganger film The One I Love (2014). The Discovery gives the impression of being mounted as a prestige production with reasonable names like Jason Segel and Rooney Mara, not to mention Robert Redford, having signed on. Charlie McDowell subsequently did assorted tv work before returning with the non-genre house burglars/hostage drama Windfall (2022).
There have been plenty of films about the afterlife but almost all of these fall into the traditional visions of heaven and hell with angels and nebulous warm fuzzies. Beginning in the 1990s, a few films began to explore more secular visions, most notably What Dreams May Come (1998). There have been an even smaller number such as Brainstorm (1983), Flatliners (1990) and The Breakthrough (1993) that deal with the scientific exploration of the afterlife.
The Discovery starts in with a fascinating premise – following the scientific proof of the afterlife, people everywhere have been conducting mass suicide. There is a great opening where discoverer Robert Redford is giving a tv interview, denying responsibility for the worldwide rash of suicides, only for someone to shoot themselves on air right in front of him.
Although the disappointment is that the film then never does much with the idea after that, rather it focuses on the further discovery beyond that that Redford has made. Almost immediately after arriving at the island, the film slows down and spends much of its time in talk and interpersonal dramas that are not that interesting.
Where the film picks up and becomes almost worthwhile is when it comes to its ending. [PLOT SPOILERS] This offers a unique take on afterlife themes where it is discovered that what lies beyond is actually a series of alternate timelines where the departing soul goes into a world where key choices of their life were made differently.
The end pulls back to a completely different stage and shows what we are in the midst of is almost a Groundhog Day (1993)-like scenario where Jason Segel has lived his journey across on the ferry and meeting with Rooney Mara dozens of times before (although I was never quite certain in this explanation how if each scenario is an individual’s alternate choices that she manages to know that this is what he has been through).