'The Discovery' Review: 'Eternal Sunshine' Meets 'Flatliners' In An Engrossing Indie Sci-Fi Package [Sundance]

We could have an argument all day about whether it's more difficult to create a multi-million dollar, visual effects spectacular blockbuster or an independent film with a budget that is spread too thin. But there's something extremely impressive about a high-concept sci-fi drama doing something so grand and ambitious with so few resources. Such is the case with the new film from The One I Love director Charlie McDowell.

The Discovery takes place in a world where Dr. Thomas Harber (Robert Redford) has proved that an afterlife exists. This revelation has prompted a huge increase in suicide in the two years since his historic finding, over four million and counting, with more being added everyday as people "celebrate" the anniversary of the discovery. The premise itself is intriguing enough, but this is just the beginning of the remarkable, fascinating, thought-provoking indie sci-fi film.

Read the rest of our The Discovery review after the jump.

Though the world has clearly been changed (for better or worse) by the proof of an afterlife, there's one man who doesn't buy into Dr. Harber's work: his estranged son Will (Jason Segel). When we meet Will, he's on a ferry, sick of hearing about all the people ending their lives so they can "get there." While on the boat, he meets a feisty, forward woman named Isla (Rooney Mara), and the two engage in some exposition and philosophical questions and discussion that not only effectively builds the world where our story takes place, but sparks big questions about just how we might react ourselves if this discovery were the real thing. This is just the beginning of their relationship as the two eventually find themselves digging in deep into what the afterlife really means for people when they "get there."

Will gets picked up by his brother Toby (a strong but subtle performance from Jesse Plemons), who looks rough around the edges but is more timid than meets the eye. They're headed to a secluded secret location, a former trouble boys' home summer camp mansion that has now been turned into a research facility for their father. This home base also happens to house several people who have felt lost and are looking for purpose in the world that has been changed by "the discovery." Will laments that it all feels like a cult, and it does to an extent, but there are real people here, with real pain, and they're desperate to figure things out.

It's here that the drama and mystery unfold as what really lies in the afterlife is slowly revealed. Though the existence of an afterlife raises many questions, which are also asked by several characters throughout the film, The Discovery is able to present a rather complex concept in an impressively simple way. The mystery is as engaging as it is surprising, right to the very end, even if it does get a little perplexing in the third act.

The Discovery ReviewThe Discovery has shades of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, both in its economical, practical production design, but also in its surprisingly simplistic approach to a high concept that is driven by carefully crafted characters. In addition, the path to the shocking, moving climax has plenty of influence from Flatliners, and a bit from the indie favorite Primer. Despite all these influences, the movie never feels like it's overtly borrowing from them, but merely emulating certain thematic elements.

Jason Segel has never done a movie like this before, and his honest, everyman persona makes the unbelievable that much easier to swallow. We know Segel has dramatic chops thanks to The End of the Tour, and he gets to show even more commendable range here. Meanwhile, Rooney Mara continues to impress as Isla, a woman who is slightly unhinged, being both firm and vulnerable at the same time. The two have superb chemistry, raising the stakes of their involvement in this engaging sci-fi plot, as well as giving the extraordinary narrative solid ground to stand on.

What makes The Discovery an outstanding piece of sci-fi is that it's not just about the story that is beyond belief, but the characters in it. The script, written by director Charlie McDowell and his The One I Love co-writer Justin Lader takes great care to ensure it's the characters who make the science fiction matter. They move the story, rather than having the story move them. Unfortunately, that creates a small problem where the audience might find itself ahead of the characters in figuring out a crucial piece of the narrative. It's not enough to derail the movie, but it does slow things down a tad.

In the end, it's the small budget approach to a big concept and the raw emotion that radiates from each and every character that makes The Discovery engrossing and astounding cinema. This one has already been picked up by Netflix for distribution, and you can watch the trailer right here before the movie comes to the streaming service on March 31st, 2017.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10