(EDITOR’S NOTE:This review is a two-part publication, written by Cinemaker Blog contributors Jake Sanders and Jeremy Nelson respectively.)
I had the privilege to see Netflix’s newest feature film The Discovery at the Alamo Drafthouse this past week. Now, if you have been following any sort of Netflix vs. Cinema gossip of the recent weeks, you might have heard that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently criticized movie theaters, saying something to the effect that the only thing updated in the cinema is better tasting popcorn. As a strongly written retort, Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League wrote a strongly-worded letter to Hastings saying that the theatrical innovation is out there, and that the difference in streaming & cinema is both in the experience, and the differing business models. League goes on to encourage Hastings to rethink his approach and attitude towards cinema . Excellent reads for those who care about inner-Hollywood gossip, let alone gossip between two titans of the industry.
The reason I bring up this anecdote is that this film was the first Netflix-produced material I had ever seen in a theater. Seeing the familiar Netflix logo pop up at the start of the film was odd, and what was more odd was that I had seen advertisements for this film a while back on Netflix first, rather than while sitting in a theater. Seeing this film felt new and alien – like I was seeing a film that others had only experienced while binge-watching through their queues at home, and then talk about with their workmates the next day. You know, like most Netflix experiences. Now, I suppose my movie review has little to do with the overall experience, but I do think that there is still something to be said about enjoying a newfound film (a “discovery,” if you will) in the theaters, with an audience surrounding you and taking it all in at the same time you are. I think Mr. Hastings is onto an amazing new frontier with streaming, and it is a frontier that the film industry must embrace as being another great tool. However, I have to side with Mr. League on this one – the experience of viewing something for the first time is just as important as the film itself, sometimes.
But I digress.
The Discovery has a very enticing premise – what if the afterlife was scientifically proven, and because of this, suicide rates increase dramatically? The film follows Will (Jason Segal), son of the man (Robert Redford) who discovered the “afterlife,” who ventures out to his father’s secluded estate to learn more about what is next in line for his discoveries. Along the way, he meets the estranged and tragic Isla (Rooney Mara), and after a series of events, the two become entangled in learning more about each other, their troubled pasts, and how to approach life with the newfound philosophy that there is something beyond life itself.
Bolstered by some of the finest filmmakers and actors in the field today, The Discovery is an excellent film. Expertly crafted, directed, shot, and edited; all while balancing a dark, yet quirky, tone from start to finish, without really wavering. Most importantly, this film is supported by some of the best performances I have seen this year (so far, that is). Robert Redford, Jesse Plemons, and Rooney Mara all give nuanced, tour-de-force supporting performances. They are all completely absorbed into their characters, and you cannot look away from the screen when they are there. As layers to their psyche are peeled away, we as an audience learn more and more of the effects of this “discovery,” and how it would impact our daily lives. The largest question at play for everyone in the film is: why go on living when there is the chance for a hard reset? And that posed question is the drive for everyone.
The best performance in the film, though, must go to Jason Segal. Albeit not entirely unfamiliar with dramatic roles (most notably his performance as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour), Segal degrades his normal personas as the humorous character, and fully realizes the character of Will, someone tormented with the thought that he may be one of the driving motivators for the “discovery.” He is deeply plagued, and just wants to find some emblem or note of peace in the otherwise sad and self-destructive world that has unraveled around him. Segal is nuanced, emotional, relatable, and has matured as an actor. At the end of the screening, we had the lucky chance of having a Q & A with the director, Charlie McDowell, Jesse Plemons, and Jason Segal. Something that Segal brought up, when asked about why he chose to do a more serious film, was that he felt that he had grown tired of the repetitive nature of some of his past work, and wanted to grow as a performer to see what else could be matured in his craft. I not only find this deeply admirable for him to admit, but I think his performance in The Discovery is an excellent resonance of his thoughts, feelings, and approach.
The film is not without a few flaws. The final act of the film is slightly rocky, with some quick exposition tossed abruptly and somewhat confusingly towards the audience. And although the film has fine-tuned dialogue between characters, delving into the philosophical meanings of life, death, and life after death – it would sometimes wade off from the main story to some more obscure elements, which took me out of the plot from time to time.
Overall, though, the film is expertly crafted. Combined with the fantastic performances from the supporting cast, a stand out performance from Jason Segal, and well-crafted philosophical dialogue delving into the meaning of death, Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery is an excellent film. I wish more people could enjoy the theatrical experience of finding films like this in the cinema (for an awesome analysis on streaming vs. the cinema, check out Rossatron’s review of Spectral, the other Netflix-produced feature from last year) – but in the meantime, Netflix is the next best place to watch it.
For better and worse, The Discovery felt like a long form episode of Black Mirror. The exploration of what a revelation like discovering proof of an afterlife would mean to society is a scenario that isn’t difficult to imagine yourself wrestling with. I quite enjoyed the measured pace and long, contemplative scenes that raise questions about depression, suicide, and learning how to go on living after the loss of a loved one. Rather than following how this (apparently undeniable) proof affects nations, government or religions, this film shows us the personal impact this world-changing proof has on the family most central to the discovery itself.
This quietly compelling sci-fi drama draws you in with cinematography that is both intimate and unsettling. The director/co-writer Charlie McDowell has crafted believable familial relationships and dialogue that, for the most part, subtly hint at the larger plot. There were a few scenes where I felt too much was given away in one awkwardly placed line. The score was atmospheric, weaving chaotic chimes and percussion with cello arrangements that always tug at my heart. The first two-thirds of the film felt very well-edited, but toward the end there were a couple scenes that felt unnecessary, and there were scenes with some voiceover lines that didn’t feel like they fit the emotional intensity of what we were seeing. Aside from a few bits of dialogue or hand-waving plot explanations, this film nails to tone and is well acted.
Overall I’d recommend giving this a watch on Netflix if you’re a fan of Black Mirror or enjoy a low-key approach to science fiction. It may not work on all the levels it’s aiming for, but its characters were enough to keep me invested in the plot and the questions it raises will keep it in my thoughts for some time to come.