When a story about the afterlife is presented as overt religious propaganda, like 2014’s Heaven Is for Real, I scoff and dismiss it out of hand. But add a little pseudoscience and substitute ambiguity and moral complications for absolute answers, and you’ve got me — and most mainstream critics and audiences — willing to go along for the ride … at least for a little while.
In the first scene of The Discovery, which premiered at Sundance on Friday night, the trailblazing Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) says that while he can’t speak to the existence of souls, he can confirm the existence of some sort of afterlife. His research has indicated that our consciousnesses go to some different plane of existence after our bodies have expired; he can’t at all confirm that this new plane is any better than the one that we currently occupy, but the world is such a miserable place for so many that even a vague promise is enough to inspire mass suicide. Given what’s going on in the real world, it’s almost hard to blame them.
Two years after the Discovery, as it is known, more than four million people have taken their own lives, hoping for a better second act. It’s gotten so bad that Will (Jason Segel), Dr. Harbor’s son and former protégé/partner, is returning home to his father’s island laboratory in order to convince him to give up his work. On the way he meets a depressed woman named Isla (Rooney Mara), and soon after, saves her from her own suicide attempt.
Will discovers that his father, though still mild-mannered, has become almost a cult leader, with a gigantic fortress staffed by true believers who wear different colored jumpsuits. Many of them have failed several times at suicide, and working for Dr. Harbor gives them something to live for … though for many, that’s just potential access to inside information about what it’s like to be dead.
Dr. Harbor is working on the next phase of his life’s work: recording where the consciousness goes once it leaves the body. Like in their first film, the delightfully twisted relationship drama The One I Love, McDowell and writing partner Justin Leder don’t spend much time with explaining the fake science driving their stories; none of it is real, so why bother? All we get is a giant laboratory and a huge tangle of electromagnetic probes stuck atop a person’s head, which look a very sloppy version of Professor X’s Cerebro.
Despite Will’s doubts, they do discover some unsettling images being transmitted from the deceased’s consciousness, which creates their own second act mystery and play into a big third act twist. As the film goes on, Will and Isla — she’s come to live at the fortress — start to wonder if they’re seeing an afterlife at all, or just electrical pulses playing back different memories. That’s where things start to go off the rails a bit … and play into real-world controversies and a scientific debate that really shouldn’t exist at all.
People who have suffered near-death experiences have for hundreds of years claimed that they saw great visions in those momentary dalliances with mortality. For many, it was a simple white light; others experienced memories and fantasies scrambled together, mixing the deep recesses of their minds with hallucinatory visions. These were often interpreted as signs of a higher power, and some still believe that they are indeed proof of a heanly being. But science has more recently explained that it’s likely just the simultaneous firing of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which seems to only occur as bodies prepare for total shutdown.
This explanation does not get mentioned in The Discovery, which in fairness, makes no assertions of being factual or scientific. It walks a careful line there; McDowell said in the post-screening Q&A that they didn’t want to invoke religion, because it would bring up far too many confusing possibilities and questions, given the plethora of religious visions of the afterlife. The movie is meant to raise more philosophical questions of both the viewer and society at large. Would you kill yourself if you knew the afterlife was a true possibility? And should society work to stop people from making that decision for themselves?
The film doesn’t explore these questions enough, because it gets preoccupied with the relationship between Will and Isla, and the personal tragedies that animate their pasts … and futures. There is a cautionary element, as is the case with most science fiction films, but an unspoken suggestion is that we haven’t made life on this earth worthy of living when theres even a vague notion of an alternative.
The Discovery will hit theaters on March 31.