Sundance 2017 Review: There is Nothing to Discover in Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery.
The Discovery is Charlie McDowell’s highly anticipated follow-up to 2014’s The One I Love. The film stars Jason Segel as Will and Rooney Mara as Isla; two strangers that randomly meet on a ferry one afternoon. During their meeting, Will believes that he has met Isla before, but Isla has no memory of this previous encounter. The two discuss their feelings on the recent news of the discovery project lead by Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford). This controversial project has confirmed that there is an afterlife and Dr. Harbor has built a machine that can prove it.
Let’s get this right out into the open; I adored the One I Love. I saw it at Sundance in 2014 and was blown away by it. I was so enamored with the film that I recommended it to my wife as well as several friends on a weekly basis until they saw it. Needless to say, I was incredibly pumped to see McDowell’s The Discovery and even had the film listed as my most anticipated film to play at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. With such an excellent feature film debut, I was hoping for at least a solid sophomore feature.
Unfortunately, The Discovery isn’t a good film, and after thinking about it for over two hours, I don’t even think its a decent film. The plot has a brilliant concept that poses questions about what happens in the afterlife but that is about all it does. Even though this concept should be fascinating, I was never invested in this story or any of the characters. I tend to love films that embrace complicated subject matters such as science and death, but there just wasn’t anything interesting about the way that McDowell and his writing partner Justin Lader told this story.
The film opens up with a riveting interview that introduces the viewer to Dr. Harbor and his discovery. This opening sequence does everything right but soon after that; the film shifts most of its focus onto Will and Isla. While The Discovery could’ve been this great unconventional love story, it doesn’t work because Segel and Mara don’t have any on-screen chemistry. Mara and Segel are horribly miscast. Neither actor is interesting to watch nor does the story give you any reason to care about their characters. Mara just does her normal blank stare while Segel walks around for most of the film looking as though he is lost.
Riley Keough, Jesse Plemons, and Robert Redford make up the film’s supporting cast members. Keough and Plemons are wasted as the material offers so little for either of them to do. I don’t even understand why the casting director decided to cast Piemons in such a small role where nothing was expected of him. The same thing can be said for Keough even though there is one scene near the end where her character Lacey is given a purpose as a way to push the story forward. The only great performance in the entire film is Robert Redford’s whose character Dr. Harbor is built primarily on the mystery of his backstory. I thought Redford truly embraced the material and shined the brightest out of all the cast.
While it is easy to blame poor casting decisions, I think the biggest issue with the film is the script. As I said previously, there are great concepts here, but Lader and McDowell just don’t do enough with it. There are so many themes mentioned such as death possibly leading to an alternative reality, but the story never digs in deep enough. It almost feels as though the writing duo heard a lot of interesting ideas and decided to write a film without doing their homework. It felt like one of those films where the writers want to make a huge statement but didn’t know how to.
While Charlie McDowell wants to believe that the film’s conclusion was left open interpretation, I think any knowledgeable film lover can clearly see what happens in the end. In all fairness, the ending is a mute point because you don’t care about the characters or believe the chemistry that supposedly occurs between them. What I am trying to say without giving anything away is that the so-called twist ending doesn’t have any real emotional impact on the viewer. This lack of emotional punch made me feel so dissatisfied that I couldn’t help but feel cheated.
Truth be told, I wanted to love The Discovery but just couldn’t. There are far too many issues and it isn’t even entertaining to watch. The Discovery feels like a wannabe Christopher Nolan film without the brains or budget. It actually pains me to do a complete 180 on McDowell but besides an excellent performance from Redford, I can’t say much about this film that I liked. McDowell said during the Q&A that he edited the film quite a bit and I have to wonder if he removed a lot of the elements that would have made this a worthwhile experience. The script takes great ideas and does nothing with them. This film is long, boring, and simply not interesting at all. I don’t know what happened with this one but I can only hope that McDowell’s third feature film can pose big questions while also providing answers to them in an entertaining way.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s rating for The Discovery is a 4 out of 10.