Sunday, April 9, 2017

A country best left undiscovered

How is it that the more movies you like a film rips off, the less likely you are to like it?

I mean, if a movie is going to rip off better movies, at least it's good if it's better movies you really like. You'd think that would be a good start.

Yet despite borrowing heavily from the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Donnie Darko, Edge of Tomorrow and, I guess, Flatliners -- all movies I quite like -- The Discovery was a total snooze.

Netlfix's second-released (if I'm keeping track) high-profile movie picked up at this year's Sundance, The Discovery is from Charlie McDowell, the guy who directed a mind-bender from a few years ago that I liked slightly less than everyone else: The One I Love.

That movie didn't do all it could have and the ending was disappointingly predictable, but before that it was a genuinely fresh vision that refused to explain all of its secrets. The setup of that movie is unlike any I'd seen before. Whereas the setup of The Discovery is ... a tad more familiar.

The idea is good. A scientist uncovers irrefutable proof of the existence of some kind of afterlife, as they have detected brainwaves leaving the body on a subatomic level at the moment of death. At least, I believe that's the explanation. Let's just say it's irrefutable proof within the world of the movie and we'll just have to accept that.

Which I would be perfectly willing to do, but the movie doesn't do much with its interesting concept. This evidence has prompted a spike in suicide rates around the world, as no longer do unhappy people feel like they need to live the rest of their miserable existences in their corporeal shells. Instead, they can immediately punch their ticket to the next plane of existence. I'm doubtful that this would really happen, but again I am willing to suspend disbelief.

It's just that this movie doesn't show us much at all, and it tells us things relentlessly, unambiguously, starting right with the amateurish exposition in the opening scene -- an interview between a TV journalist (Mary Steenburgen) and this scientist (Robert Redford), in which she recaps everything we need to know in a dozen lines of awkward stiffness. About 15 minutes in I commented to my wife that this was about the most talky movie I had ever seen. (An exaggeration, but the degree of my dissatisfaction with what I'd seen thus far prompted me to it.)

To tell you the ways this rips off the movies I've referenced above would constitute spoilers, so I won't do that. But I do think it's worth telling you about the hilariously derivative meet cute between the romantic leads, played by Jason Segel and Rooney Mara, which happens near the beginning so it's spoiler free.

Segel, a reserved introvert, and Mara, an extrovert with manic pixie dream girl ambitions (except that she's suicidal), meet much the same way that the characters played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, Joel and Clementine, meet in Eternal Sunshine. Joel being a reserved introvert and Clementine being an extrovert with manic pixie dream girl ambitions (though not suicidal). In both cases they are the only two in each other's vicinity on a public transport, here a ferry, there a train. In both cases he sits in his seat normally while she drapes herself over her own seat. In both cases she tries to crack his facade with acerbic wit while he gradually warms to the unfamiliar situation. In both cases they even talk about the meaning of the woman's name (Clementine's bit about the song and her hair color, and Mara saying her character doesn't look like an Isla, though of course she does). In Charlie Kaufman's case, though, he was at least happy to go with ordinary names that have no thematic meaning -- well, maybe not totally ordinary names, but at least no thematic meaning. Not the case with McDowell, who names one Will (one of the most metaphorical names we have, right after Grace) and names the other Isla (she's an island, you see).

Everything thuds down with about that same level of subtlety.

I don't think there was an intended play on words with the title The Discovery and Shakespeare, who called death "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."  But it's clear that Charlie McDowell is no Shakespeare, and this country is not worth visiting.

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