Proof of an afterlife is no stairway to heaven in 'The Discovery'

You can run on for a long time, as Johnny Cash once helpfully told us, but sooner or later God (or perhaps one too many bacon-wrapped hot dogs) is gonna cut you down.

And then what? Angels? Gardens of perpetual bliss? Streets paved with gold? Or are we just adding more dirt to the ground?

Even the most devout believers and hardened atheists don’t know the answer for sure. But what would happen if they did?

In “The Discovery,” we are introduced to Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), a physicist possessing scientific proof that something — subatomic particles, wavelengths, a soul — leaves the body upon death and travels to a new plane of existence.

Harbor’s discovery leads to an unintended consequence. By its second anniversary, more than 4 million people have committed suicide, figuring why stick around this two-bit reality when you can find a new, presumably better place where there’s no more sorrow, no more pain and, more than likely, no more telemarketers.

It’s a provocative premise for a movie, but “The Discovery” will likely be remembered mostly as a conversation starter. Director Charlie McDowell, who co-wrote the film with Justin Lader, sidesteps the material’s more intriguing ideas, ultimately settling for a conventional story about love, loss and second chances. The disappointment comes not in the lack of answers but in the relative absence of audacity in tackling such a trippy concept.

Since the discovery, Harbor has retreated to a secluded island, continuing his research inside a palatial fortress. The complex is staffed by people Harbor has taken in after they failed to kill themselves, and the whole thing looks like a cult, with the adherents wearing color-coded jumpsuits. (The dynamic between Harbor and his subjects is one of many plot elements that the film barely touches upon.)

Early on, Harbor’s estranged, sad sack son Will (Jason Segel) visits, hoping to convince his father to take everything back and tell the world he was wrong. On the boat ride over, Will meets a troubled young woman, Isla (Rooney Mara), who, upon first glance, seems awfully familiar to him. She gives him a quick once-over and labels him annoying. It’s hard to argue the point.

Now that Harbor has opened the door to the afterlife for people, he wants to show them what’s behind it. He believes he now has the ability to visually record images from the “other side.” This, as you may well imagine, leads to many, many questions about the strange mysteries enveloping our existence, like, for example, whether you can unfriend someone in the afterlife. (Per the movie: Probably not.)

The movie never fully explores Harbor’s motivations or relationships with his sons, (Jesse Plemons plays the youngest.) Redford’s work is almost always characterized by restraint, so you can hardly expect him to deliver a mad scientist here. But it would have been nice if Harbor’s secrets didn’t remain as profound as the hereafter's. Something sinister seems to be bubbling underneath that golden exterior.

The film offers sturdy reasons why Will and Isla are so morose. But it doesn't help the movie's energy to have its two main characters gaze so often into the distance, their thoughts as bleak as cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s desolate visuals.

Let’s just say narrative momentum isn’t McDowell’s strong suit here. Nor is, at times, logic: Wouldn’t a billboard campaign that keeps a running tally of worldwide suicides run counter to its cautionary purpose and actually give people permission to “hit the reset button.” (Everyone’s doing it? Why not?)

Much better is the movie’s conviction that banking on the afterlife isn’t a substitute for learning, loving and living in the here and now. That’s not exactly an earth-shattering discovery. But that’s about all we’re going to get in this life and from this film.

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‘The Discovery’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: iPic Westwood; iPic Pasadena; also streaming on Netflix

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