At first glimpse, The Discovery, which premiered on Netflix March 31, is every Black Mirror fanatic’s dream. This star-studded Netflix original film is set in the near future, in a world that mostly resembles our own — save one key technological progression.
But unlike in Black Mirror, the technology has less to do with screens and social media and more to do with our immortal souls.
With his vaguely described mind-mapping machine, Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) has successfully proven the existence of the afterlife. And once unleashed, this discovery drastically changes the way people live and die.
The Discovery begins one year after the announcement, when Dr. Harbor emerges from his isolation to address the devastating repercussions of his discovery. Since death is now perceived as destination, over 4 million individuals have taken their own lives to “get there,” as the terminology goes. The number shows no sign of slowing.
One thing’s for sure: Philosophically, The Discovery is planted in rich soil for its entire run time. The film marries science with the soul, spurring some titillating trains of thought worth exploring.
But, unfortunately, The Discovery forgets to do what Black Mirror, at its best, does so successfully: couch grand philosophical ideas in richly drawn characters. Judging from the film’s collection of flimsy, bleak characters, the people who are still alive have forgotten how to live.
On a winter ferry over to some desolate Atlantic island, we're introduced to a sullen Will (Jason Segal), who happens to be the son of Dr. Thomas Harbor. Will meets Isla (Rooney Mara) on the ferry, a woman who wears her cynicism like an irresistible coat of armour Will is intent on dismantling.
After Will rescues Isla from intentionally drowning, he takes her to his father's mansion. How romantic. Together, Will and Isla find themselves at the forefront of Dr. Harbor's newest mission: mapping the terrain of the afterlife.
In this elite world at the epicentre of scientific experimentation, we’re cloistered from daily life and the real problems the discovery has unleashed. How, I wondered, is the rest of the world grappling with this tremendous knowledge? We’re offered only unsatisfying morsels of exposition: news of cheerleaders taking cyanide pills at halftime; one character flippantly announcing he's finished going to funerals. Will, Isla, and Dr. Harbor exist in a world only half coloured in.
Instead of focusing on the reality of life in the post-discovery world, the film looks at a scientist whose ego is on the line. Instead of showing what a school or supermarket looks like, the movie shows us life in Dr. Harbor's strange cult, cut off from society.
The Discovery places its emphasis on the population most difficult to emphasise with: the perpetrators.
That’s not to say that The Discovery isn’t compelling like Black Mirror. But with its lofty twists and aching questions, philosophy — not people — becomes The Discovery's most interesting feature.
If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.