Two highly-anticipated releases have hit Netflix in recent days, and when faced with a severe bit of downtime this weekend, I was able to consume both. The first was The Discovery, a sci-fi drama (and Netflix original) helmed by Charlie McDowell (The One I Love). The second was Train to Busan, a critically-acclaimed South Korean fast-zombie thriller.
The opening scene of this lo-fi, high-concept tale is very strong, depicting a televised interview with Dr. Thomas Harbor, a scientist who recently proved the existence of an afterlife. This discovery (!) has resulted in a cultural mass-acceptance of suicide. Death is no longer something to be feared, it seems, even if it’s not fully understood. The interviewer asks Harbor if he feels responsible for the millions of suicides which have occurred since his discovery (!), and he easily sidesteps the question, indicating that his discovery (!) was simply too big to hide from humanity. The sequence continues to a startling denouement, but unfortunately, this is the film’s high point. What follows is an semi-interesting, undercooked conceptual exploration that struggles to fill its feature length.
This is not for want of some truly excellent performances. Jason Segel shines as Harbor’s estranged son, confirming a dramatic depth that was first evidenced in 2015’s The End of the Tour. This is his story, and we watch him attempt to bring his father and brother (Jesse Plemons) into the belief that sometimes too much knowledge can be a bad thing, all the while trying to imbue hope into the heart of a suicidal young woman (Rooney Mara).
Equal parts Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and and Flatliners, The Discovery never reaches the heights of its influences, dancing around a heady sci-fi device without really digging as deep as it could or being as entertaining as its pedigree would indicate. That said, it’s the type of film which will inspire conversation of enough worth to validate a viewing.
Train to Busan
Despite being many years past the time when zombies were even remotely interesting, this South Korean thrill-ride feels fresh — not because it does anything new, but because it greases the wheels of the old machine so well, delivering an unending series of emotional gut-punches at a breakneck pace.
Taking place over the course of a single day, Busan follows workaholic father Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) and his young daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim, in one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen) as they take a train to her mother’s home in the city of Busan. Just as the train departs, an outbreak of a fast-zombie virus breaks out (think 28 Days Later…), and an infected girl finds her way onboard. You can figure out the rest from here.
The infection spreads and director Sang-ho Yeon (whose previous work is entirely animated — it shows here) uses the train setting to stage multiple terrifying and intense set-pieces, both on and off board. Shots which serve to establish the geography of the setting also serve to introduce a roster of characters and future-victims, the size of which many films would find unwieldy. But here it’s all streamlined in a way that doesn’t hinder the strong character work. The people behave exactly the way you’d expect them to, and the interpersonal interactions between members of the focal cast are genuine and often heartbreaking.
It’s a cruel movie with a massive body count, but it’s not joyless. Small doses of humor bring levity to the harshness as do some deeply satisfying moments of comeuppance for the more despicable characters. At its heart, Train to Busan is a morality play, and while it doesn’t skimp upon the slaughtering of innocent players, it casts cold judgment upon those who are selfish and without empathy. There’s even a sequence that, intended or no, makes a strong case for kindness and generosity toward refugees. Maybe I’m projecting as an American who feels shame toward our recent handling of the refugees crisis, but the ethics are black and white. Loving is living. And zombies are horrifying.
The Discovery is decent and worth watching. Train to Busan is essential for genre fans.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.