Monday, April 3, 2017

On Netflix: THE DISCOVERY (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Directed by Charlie McDowell. Written by Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader. Cast: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Robert Redford, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough, Ron Canada, Mary Steenburgen, Wendy Makkena, MJ Karmi. (Unrated, 102 mins)

Watching the Netflix Original film THE DISCOVERY, it seems completely feasible than director/co-writer Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen) and writing partner Justin Lader (they previously worked together on the 2014 Mark Duplass indie THE ONE I LOVE) came up with a killer opening sequence and struggled to build a story around it. The first five minutes of THE DISCOVERY would make a great short film. A few years in the future, controversial physicist Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) is being interviewed by a TV news journalist (Steenburgen) on the one-year anniversary of what's come to be known as "The Discovery." Harbor is a household name the world over for finding irrefutable, scientific proof of the afterlife, demonstrating that the spirit breaks down measurable brain waves to a subatomic level as those particles venture to another plane of existence beyond our reality. Upon his presenting The Discovery to the world, death became the ultimate reward. People with terminal illnesses welcomed their diagnosis. The global suicide rate skyrocketed, as people had proof of what they now "know" is a better world waiting for them and they voluntarily check out to expedite their journey to that better place. Everyone from the homeless to the depressed to Hollywood celebrities and sports heroes started taking their own lives, with over a million suicides in the first year. As the interview goes along, one of the news crew's production assistants interrupts to say "Thank you, Dr. Harbor, for my fresh start," turns a gun on himself and blows his brains out on camera.

A year after that, Harbor is running a research facility in an isolated, gothic-looking compound in a remote Rhode Island seaside town, and is visited by his estranged son Will Stevenson (Jason Segel), a neurologist who started using his late mother's maiden name to distance himself from The Discovery. Harbor is working with his other son Toby (Jesse Plemons) and longtime research assistant Cooper (Ron Canada), with the compound staffed by Harbor acolytes, all failed suicides who now view Harbor as some kind of messiah. Will is visiting in a hapless attempt to persuade his father to stop experimenting with the afterlife, feeling tremendous guilt about the whole situation because the incident that inspired Harbor's research--a near-death experience Will had as a child--was embellished by a young and mischievous Will, who told his parents he "saw things" while he was flatlined. Harbor entertains no thoughts of abandoning his research. He's actually had a new breakthrough: a machine that can record the images seen by the recently deceased. Harbor needs a cadaver, which leads to Will, Toby, and Isla (Rooney Mara), a woman Will met on the ferry and later saved from a suicide attempt, stealing a corpse from a local hospital. Hooking the body up to the machine yields no results, but while dismantling the wires and electrodes alone, Will sees blurred images on a monitor that must be what the dead man is seeing in his afterlife. Keeping this secret from his father, Will and Isla, both damaged souls (he blames his mother's suicide on Harbor, she fell asleep and her five-year-old son vanished, never to be seen again), begin a tentative, hesitant romance while getting to the truth of the images seen in the video of the dead man's afterlife.

THE DISCOVERY falls apart right around the time Will, Isla, and Toby decide to steal a corpse from the morgue, with the lone attendant complaining "I'm doing the work of five people!" as if that's sufficient excuse for making it look that easy to wheel a dead body out of a hospital. With a premise that's crying out for someone like PRIMER and UPSTREAM COLOR auteur Shane Carruth, there's numerous directions THE DISCOVERY could've gone: a philosophical, existential FOUNTAIN mode Darren Aronofsky-meets-circa TREE OF LIFE Terrence Malick mind-bender; a love story that traverses Heaven and Earth in a more scientific take on Wim Wenders' WINGS OF DESIRE and FARAWAY, SO CLOSE; a sci-fi variant on Paul Thomas Anderson's THE MASTER; a post-Duplass mumblecore drama; and even a horror route, with the inherent creepiness of the garbled video transmissions of the afterlife having an undeniable John Carpenter/PRINCE OF DARKNESS aura about them. But in McDowell's hands, the film doesn't take any of these paths. It just stands there, confused, until a cliched twist ending that plays out like Charlie Brooker adapting Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" as an episode of BLACK MIRROR. Segel and Mara do what they can with their mopey characters (judging from her appearance here, it looks a lot like Mara's Isla was written with ANOTHER EARTH's Brit Marling in mind--this seems like the kind of project in which Marling would script and star). In one of the least-engaged performances of his career, Redford seems to have dropped by for a few days of shooting and is stuck with the film's most impenetrable and inconsistent character. Initially presented as a committed, principled man of science, Harbor isn't interested in God or religion and just looks at the hard facts, but by the second anniversary of The Discovery, he's either a manipulative cult leader or a mad scientist--the movie can't seem to decide, but Redford never adjusts his performance either way. It's a role that seems more fitting for McDowell's dad Malcolm, and Redford just looks bored, fidgety and uncomfortable throughout, like he realized after his first day on the set that this was a dud and it was too late to back out of it. For a star of his magnitude, Redford's onscreen appearances were relatively sparse from the 1980s to the 2000s as he focused his creative energies on directing and Sundance, but in the last seven years, he's been more visible than in past decades, even having fun in big-budget special effects movies like CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and PETE'S DRAGON, the kind of tentpole projects he would never do in his heyday. A living legend at 80, Redford has nothing to prove to anyone, but if THE DISCOVERY is any indication, it would perhaps behoove him to go back to being a little more picky about his acting gigs in his emeritus years. McDowell concocts an intriguing premise with THE DISCOVERY but just doesn't know what to do with it, leading to a dull, dreary misfire that does little to combat the stigma that most Netflix Original films debut there for a reason.

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