“What kind of atheist talks to God?”

In the near future, a scientist (Robert Redford) discovers definitive proof of the afterlife. In response, millions choose to commit suicide. What no one has figured out yet is exactly what said afterlife looks like. This is where we meet Redford’s son, played by Jason Segel, as he heads to his father’s compound to confront his mistakes – but not before he runs into a ghostly Rooney Mara and feels an instant connection.

The Discovery has a premise rife with potential. Regardless of the plausibility behind it (wouldn’t other scientists have to recreate the results? Why would people off themselves if the form of the afterlife isn’t clear?), the basic conceit could allow for a direct and poignant rumination on mortality built upon a loose science fiction backbone.

In theory, there’s plenty of human drama to mine from. Segel projects an exhausted fragility in every interaction, and the ways in which he, Redford, and Jesse Plemons (as his hilarious jam band brother) interact find intimacy behind their estrangement. Segel presents his affections for Mara as simultaneously romantic and selfish – though Mara doesn’t really make an impression, seemingly sleepwalking through the role as a distant waif. Potentially, there’s a hell of a lot of character to be tested against the backdrop.

Unfortunately, Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader’s script chooses to focus equally, if not more so, on the machinations of the science, rather than its emotional implications. The inner lives of their characters and their motivations seem created purely to move through the various twists of the plot. And though their is a powerful grace in its final moments, and a certain profundity in the optimism it wrings out of the hell of its final third, one still wishes that these people – and their very human problems – had been given more room to breathe.

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