Scientist’s Undeniable Proof of an Afterlife Leads to Mass Suicides in Netflix’s “The Discovery”

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If you think that premise sounds depressing or even melodramatic, you’d be right. But despite the nonsensical suicide concept, the film presents some great science-fiction-worthy ideas–which makes viewing this crawling, moody movie even more disappointing.

The Discovery is a slow dance, a science fiction tease with the pacing of something like Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013), and a feel akin to Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). But it lacks the full human exploration of its sci-fi ideas.

We open on Robert Redford’s character, the now famous and reclusive Dr. Harbor, giving an interview in his home to a journalist. Here we learn that many believe Harbor’s irrefutable proof of the afterlife is causing the mass suicide epidemic. Harbor says he doesn’t feel responsible. Are we convinced?

As if to answer that question, the movie presents a crew member from the journalist’s production team: he holds a gun to his head and blows his brains out, interrupting the interview. It’s a strange and startling and melodramatic moment that hangs over the rest of the film: one feels that another shock-and-awe moment could happen at any time, despite the dragging pace.

As if that opening note wasn’t enough, The Discovery persistently reminds us that everyone is punching out. A hospital even has a digital suicide counter in its waiting room, the brightly illuminated numbers ticking away like stock commodities as lives end.

Which raises a central question:

Who Are These Suicide-Driven People?

The movie never answers this.

We know people are knocking themselves off to get to the afterlife, sure, but we also know that Dr. Harbor doesn’t really know what this afterlife is. No one does. So the risk (that dying will suck) is still as prevalent as it was prior the discovery.

The movie just assumes this is a logical cause and effect scenario: “Oh, there’s an afterlife? See ‘ya.”

Religious folks have never needed science to believe in an afterlife. And in Christianity, suicide is a grave sin. For some people, wouldn’t afterlife proof legitimize the edicts of such religions and compel its adherents to follow them even more?

I guess I have a hard time fathoming that religious people would off themselves just because science proves what they already believed in. Most would not risk shaking the canoe of their spiritual journey. So we can cross off most religious folks from the list.

If not the religious, who is represented by the movie’s over four million suicide victims?

Are the undecided, the agnostics, the atheists offing themselves?

When a central, driving-the-whole-story premise draws this many questions, it’s on shaky ground. And ignoring the holes and the unreasonableness of this storyline is a lot to ask. It makes me think this premise was meant as a quirky, dark comedy joke. Perhaps intended to be absurd?

If that’s the case, the movie gives little in the way of hints.

Is there any redeemable quality besides the cool birdseye shot of Jason Segel strapped into Dr. Harbor’s machine (see image at the top of post)?

The Most Redeemable Element is also the Most Infuriating (Spoilers)


There’s a Charlie-Kaufman-Eternal-Sunshine-of-the-Spotless-Mind feel to the ending (and to the whole film once you see the ending), where, to the filmmakers’ credit, many loose ends are tied up, and connections are drawn in a final twist.

This really surprised me.

I thought I was watching a different kind of movie: a slow-moving, slightly quirky drama with a hole-punctured sci-fi premise… and then the spiritual reality portion of the film suddenly became clever.

We find out what the heck this afterlife is all about. The answer suggests a Groundhog Day (1993), Buddhist-like eternal reincarnation. Our protagonist has been stuck in a loop, reincarnating into the same life until he saves the woman on the ferry, Isla (Rooney Mara). This is intriguing; however, the twist is so well-guarded throughout the film, that clue-seeking never occurred to me.

The film even seems to be aware that the audience won’t be looking for any connections and so montages old clips, replaying important scenes and lines that all thematically and metaphorically represent this conclusion of our protagonist’s existence. The clues were there the whole time, so subtly shrouded in the storyline’s fabric that they were easily missed.

The most infuriating part is the intriguing combination of ideas and tropes: the mad scientist, the strange brain machines, the spiritual, scientifically provable “beyond.” This is a fresh and truly intriguing combo. Even the mass suicide thing could work if properly framed. The issue is the film never immerses us in these ideas; it never shows us what it would be like to exist in this never-ending life loop.


I want Movies like “The Discovery” to Succeed

But it’s hard to get behind them when they don’t fully execute and explore their central ideas. It’s encouraging Netflix is funding sci-fi movies like this. I want them to do more as long as they’re high quality.

There is a trend in science fiction film that I love right now. It’s the character-driven dramas that don’t sacrifice sci-fi concepts and action. Such films are paving the way for remarkable portrayals in the genre. To see what I mean, watch movies like Interstellar (2014), Arrival (2016), The Martian (2015), Inception (2010), and even Rogue One (2016).

I’d like that trend to succeed and grow.

Despite its efforts, and its awesome movie poster, The Discovery attempts something similar to this trend but falls short, not really fitting in with itself, and often not being compelling enough to suppress a yawn.

Starring Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, and Robert Redford. Directed by Charlie McDowell. Written by Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader. Available for viewing on Netflix on March 31st, 2017.

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M. J. Kelley

M. J. is an award-winning short fiction writer and author of a forthcoming nonfiction book. He loves science fiction, humor, & literary fiction and is the director of Write Draft Critique: the Virtual Writer Workshop.


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