The question most important to good science fiction isn’t “What if?” but “What then?” The premise of Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery – what if we knew the afterlife was real? – has naturally been getting much of the attention devoted to the film at Sundance. But it’s the way McDowell follows through on that idea, and how it might, or might not, change the world we know that puts The Discovery to the test.

If there’s another world why not get there as soon as you can?

The Discovery, which, like McDowell’s debut, The One I Love, he co-wrote with Justin Lader, opens with a jarring but gimmicky prologue. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), the scientist who has provided proof that there is some form of life after death, is in the midst of defending his findings to a TV interviewer (a far-too-brief appearance by Mary Steenburgen), when a member of her crew interrupts to blow his brains out on the air. But in contrast with last year’s twin Sundance entries about the on-camera suicide of Florida newscaster Christine Chubbuck, his action isn’t a protest so much as an invitation: if there’s another world, it can’t be worse than this one, so why not get there as soon as you can?

Skip forward in time, and Thomas Harbor has gone into hiding. Suicide has become rife, with millions worldwide taking their own lives in an effort to find out what’s next. His son, Will (Jason Segel), a neurologist, has come to confront him, but en route to Thomas’s island retreat he meets Isla (Rooney Mara), a brooding bottle blonde who becomes both his foil and his accomplice, challenging and collaborating with him as he tries to fight his way to the truth, or at least a truth.

It seems odd the film is so little concerned with religious views of the afterlife

The question of whether an afterlife exists is as much epistemological as metaphysical: if not necessarily all, at least a significant percentage of the world’s religious faithful have long had all the proof they need. Thomas Harbor’s discovery would seem to overwhelmingly settle the question, but as his son argues, “Proof shouldn’t be overwhelming; it should be definitive.” (The extent to which that statement sounds either profound or sophomoric is a good indication of how much you’ll get out of The Discovery.) The group of followers with which Thomas Harbor surrounds himself, jumpsuited and glassy-eyed, seems more like a nascent cult than a gathering of advanced minds who’ve traded primitive superstition for fact.

The descent of man

McDowell’s most inspired stroke in The Discovery is casting Robert Redford as Harbor. Redford plays him as a homespun techno-prophet whose deafness to the consequences of publicising his findings is rooted in a kind of monstrous idealism. To Will, he privately pooh-poohs the “theatrics” of his pseud-cult as a necessary evil, a way of keeping his followers under control – and, perhaps, keeping them alive – but he knows those theatrics also make him the cult’s de facto leader, and not a neutral conveyor of objective truths.

It seems odd that a movie so concerned with life after death should make so little reference to the thousands of years of religious and philosophical thought on the subject. It’s as if Harbor and his followers have cut themselves off not only from the world but from its history, wiped the slate clean and built a whole new system of belief from the ground up. While The Discovery plays in many ways like a more effective version of the concept-choked Brit Marling/Zal Batmanglij movies, the cult scenes feel underdeveloped next to their film The Sound of My Voice, an intriguing but ragged thread left dangling as The Discovery turns towards more concrete, backstory-driven explanations for its characters’ obsessions. Riley Keough feels especially shortchanged as the most haunted of Thomas’s followers, and Jesse Plemons, as Thomas’s other, less confrontational son, feels like he’s mainly there to goose the plot along rather than to expand the movie’s ideas.

McDowell has bitten off a tremendous amount in his second feature, but not all of it gets chewed.

Like The One I Love, The Discovery’s most discussion-worthy aspects come in its twisty final act, a conversation that will have to be tabled for a later date. Suffice to say that as Thomas’s research continues and Will and Isla conduct an investigation of their own, the movie cycles from one conception of the afterlife to another, but its ending feels more like a function of sentiment than conceptual fulfillment. McDowell has bitten off a tremendous amount in his second feature, but not all of it gets chewed.

There’s something particularly fitting about seeing Redford in that part alongside his role as the keeper of Sundance’s flame, the still-powerful but incessantly compromised doctrine as the home of independent film, a term that has become impossible to define except through the (partial) absence of commercial compromise. McDowell’s own trajectory, from the director of an intimate, provocative debut feature to the larger, more diffuse The Discovery, itself poses questions about what indie film means in the current climate, especially since, although a small theatrical release is planned, the vast majority of viewers will see it on Netflix, who acquired the movie before the festival began. Small-screen viewing won’t help the movie, which is shot in a precise and chilly style that evokes both Kubrick and Chris Marker’s La Jetée.

The Discovery is, like Arrival, a genuine movie of ideas, and if it doesn’t have the budget to echo Arrival’s global tableaux, it deftly suggests the wider effects of Thomas Harbor’s revelations: as Will takes the ferry to his father’s island, we see a rapidly escalating digital display tallying the number of global suicides, emblazoned with the hashtag “#discoverlife”. There’s a bigger story The Discovery wants to tell, and if it doesn’t quite get around to telling it, the movie it suggests is fascinating enough to make up for some of the shortcomings of the movie it is.

★★★☆☆ 

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