Sundance Review: “The Discovery”



“The Discovery” hooks you in with a fantastic and shocking opening scene, one that is so compelling that it grossly misleads you as to what is to come in this boring, emotionless, and utterly sluggish movie. It’s the kind of film that you’ll start to watch with some enthusiasm but then shut it off within the first 15 minutes.  It’s obvious the filmmakers think they’ve made some profound work of art, but this movie isn’t nearly as important nor impressive as their boasting would suggest.

When a scientist (Robert Redford) proves the existence of an afterlife, the world’s suicide rate skyrockets. His son (Jason Segel) develops an attraction to a mysterious woman (Rooney Mara) and the pair go to live in his dad’s science-minded mansion. The film plays with time and alternate universes, and leaves too many questions unanswered.

The reason I think I really hated this movie is that it’s so full of itself; so much so that you can practically feel the massive egos of the writer and director leaping off the screen and proceeding to beat the audience over the head.

It’s sloppily directed by Charlie McDowell, a disjointed disarray that reminds me of a rip-off of the far superior “Flatliners,” “Another Earth,” and “Groundhog Day.” After viewing this movie, it’s clear that alternate reality timelines are best left to more competent writers and directors like Brit Marling and Christopher Nolan. The non-cohesive story is maddening (with a twist ending that is a guaranteed frustrating letdown), the writing (by McDowell and Justin Lader) is on a fifth grade level with a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing,’ and the characters are all kept at a distance, leading to zero emotional connection with any of them. The characters’ motivations are unclear at best, nonsensical at worst. There’s an unbelievable love story between leads Segel and Mara, their chemistry altogether absent.

Instead of taking the time and care to craft an astute, meaningful story about the existence of an afterlife, the screenplay takes the lazy route and dismisses anything and everything remotely interesting. Why not explore the religious and moral implications of such a scientific discovery? Oh, that’s right: it would take far too much work and thought to do so! Not only is the content tired, but the drab, dreary cinematography is also ugly and the movie looks terrible. The same goes for the wildly uneven original score.

This movie made me so angry that I can only compare it to the cinematic equivalent of one massive eye roll.


“The Discovery” irritated me more than any movie in recent memory, largely due to the self-important attitude of director Charlie McDowell, who was on hand to answer questions during a recent screening at the Sundance Film Festival.

According to McDowell, he has made an important movie that explores complex and interesting questions of morality that have gained new urgency in the face of Trump’s America. That wasn’t the movie I saw. Apparently, having everyone at a film festival tell you how brilliant you are for 10 days straight will go to your head. It certainly went to his.

In “The Discovery” Jason Segel is Will Harbor, the son of acclaimed scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford). The senior Harbor has made a life-changing discovery that has changed the face of humankind: he has proven, scientifically and without a doubt, that the human consciousness continues to exist after death on some alternate plane of existence. This discovery has led to a massive amount of suicides across the world, as people look to escape their problems in this world and seek an opportunity to exist somewhere else. Will, who is estranged from his father, returns home to his dad’s compound where Thomas continues his research to answer the remaining question: what comes next?

Admittedly, it’s a fascinating premise. It raises many interesting questions: is suicide moral when we know that death is not the end? And, more importantly, when will people start determining to take a step beyond suicide and actually murder someone else with the intention of sending them to a hoped-for better place? Is murder ever acceptable, or moral, under those circumstances? And what about the effect of the discovery on religion? Does the certainty of continuing to exist after death make it more or less likely that religion will play an important role in people’s lives? Do more or fewer people start attending church after the discovery?

These are all great questions that are raised by the film’s premise. But it doesn’t seriously explore any of them. Instead, the story which focuses largely on Will and his relationship with Isla (Rooney Mara), a mysterious woman that Will meets on a ferry boat. Will and Isla have absolutely zero chemistry – both due to their poorly-written characters and the attention of the actors – and this lack of believability in their relationship completely poisons the movie and everything that follows. We are supposed to believe that Will’s feelings for Isla somehow motivate him, but we can’t. And what’s worse is that when the film takes a violent turn, the characters’ motivations remain similarly baffling, even after the screenwriters (McDowell and Justin Lader) have tried to explain them.

“The Discovery” is a nonsensical movie that is one of the most shameful wastes of a great premise since “Be Kind Rewind” and “Unleashed.”

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.


  1. It’s on Netflix now, and although I didn’t have quite as strong of a reaction against it as both of you I was certainly underwhelmed. It kind of just made me want to re-watch Eternal Sunshine considering the presence of the ferry, importance of a specific beach as emotional touchstone for the couple and Rooney Mara’s manic tendencies.

    Liked by 1 person

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