The gloom is relentless, from the End Times fog that hangs over the locations to the funereal subject matter — “proof” that the afterlife is real, with millions upon millions ready to check it out, because things here among the living seem hopeless.
As the late-not-great Vic Ferrari might have reviewed “The Discovery,” “Whoa, hard to get happy after THAT one.”
This Charlie McCarthy (“The One I Love”) drama is sci-fi at its cheapest, a Netflix film that relies on location, weather and quiet to set its tone and a very good cast to make it watchable.
Robert Redford plays a scientist who, when we see him interviewed (by Mary Steenburgen) for TV, is years past his great breakthrough. He’s proven that when we die, we don’t just rot. There’s a “new plane of existence” that we go to. He’s not sure on the specifics, but millions have taken him at his word and punched their own “start over” button. People are ending their lives in hope of some alternate existence.
He’s no sooner denied accepting responsibility for the massive spike in the suicide rate when one of the TV crew kills himself, right in front of him.
Is Thomas Harbor a prophet or a false prophet? He is heedless science who may have jumped the gun on his big announcement.
That’s the opinion of Will (Jason Segel), a neurologist who meets an assertive, brash blonde Isla (Rooney Mara) on a nearly empty ferryboat shortly after that TV interview.
Will grasps that “consciousness is another state of matter,” starting up a conversation with the only other passenger on the boat. But committing suicide to see what becomes of it? Madness.
“Maybe they went someplace better,” she offers.
“Maybe they went someplace worse.”
The movie, which never breaks tone to add excitement, joy, whimsy or sarcasm to the proceedings, misses its first opportunity here.
The world is emptying out, and two people on a big ferry headed to Aquidneck, Rhode Island have the whole thing to themselves. Sure, the impact of a mass die-off would be an economic collapse, a societal shut down and a less crowded planet. It’d mainly be lonely.
Isla is headed to this isle to kill herself, and Will intervenes. And when they show up at the ancient hotel turned summer camp turned hidden research station, we discover that Will is Dr. Harbor’s Doubting Thomas son.
There’s another son, Will’s brother (Jesse Plemons) helping run the place, with Cooper (Ron Canada) and a whole lot of people who have survived their suicide attempts. They’re not exactly zombies, but they’re compliant.
“We opened the door for these people,” Dad explains.
“You’ve started a cult!” the smarter son fires back.
The research goes on, as does the movie, which lurches from an energy-deprived spin on “The Rapture” to “Flatliners” without the sex appeal, bravado or excitement.
Through it all, “The Discovery” fails to gin up anything that breaks its tone or tempo. There’s a little mystery to it, but nothing that drives our curiosity, no resolution that lives down to the utter glumness of it all.
The performers make no effort to overcome this. Segel tamps down his comic edge, and Mara offers nothing other than the icy, groomed perfection of her look to make her appealing or even interesting.
Redford gives this guy a touch of the villain about him, a man who hastens the World’s End but, like the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world, shrugs off any share of the blame.
The world may be a mess and our culture in a kind of death-spiral at the moment. “The Discovery” suggests there is no escape, and with an afterlife as pointless as the one sort of depicted here, who might cling to hope?
After 100 minutes of this, I mean?
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, suicide, violence, adult themes, profanity
Cast: Robert Redford, Rooney Mara, Jason Segal, Jesse Plemons, Ron Canada, Mary Steenburgen
Running time: 1:42