I’ve had Netflix’s movie the Discovery on my list of anticipated upcoming movies for upwards of six months now. And holy cow did it pay off. First, if you haven’t heard of it, you have to know that the creators of The Discovery – Justin Lader, Charlie McDowell – also crafted one of my favorite movies of recent years… The One I Love. If you don’t know that particular movie, stop. STop stOP STOP, and go watch it now. It’s one of those brilliant underrated movies that hardly anyone has ever seen. And yet, it deserves to be seen over and over again. (Which, is much like this movie… which also deserves to be seen over and over and over again.) So I knew that what ever Lader and McDowell were going to bring us was going to be good.
Come. On!!! That is goodness right there. The Discovery grapples with existential powerhouse questions like, what is death? What is life? When things go all pear-shaped should we punch out and hit the reset button? Why do we stick when things get tough? What is the meaning of life really? The Discovery covers a million fantastic mental-gymnastic type questions that most Americans don’t slow down long enough to even give them a second thought. But for a hundred minutes we see this world wherein all these questions just get jumbled and questioned, and considered. Over and over again.
I will dive into the spoilers in a second, so those of you who haven’t seen it yet, you’ll need to leave. But before you go… the concept of this movie is a doozy as you saw in the trailer. Thomas has had a DISCOVERY. And that discovery is that there definitely is a place that our souls go to after we die. He definitely knew for sure that this life wasn’t everything. And with that? Over 4 million people have committed suicide since The Discovery. FOUR MILLION? That’s not a problem, it’s a pandemic. A pogrom even, heheh. Which is just a fantastic backstory upon which to overlay this story. Such fantastic writing about a son, and his cult leader-esque father. So yeah, this is a fantastic movie. Go watch it, and then come back so we can discuss it in detail! But go. Leave. Shoo. That is if you haven’t seen it yet. Because the rest of us have some heavy lifting to do.
The Discovery Overview
The Discovery starts off with a bang. Literally. During an interview with Thomas, the creator of The Discovery, the interviewer tries to pin the blame on him for the skyrocketing suicide rate. But Thomas refuses to take any ownership whatsoever for the suicides. At which point, one of the crew conducting the interview pulls out a gun and says, “Thank you for my fresh start…” and then shoots himself.
Cut to ferry. (And what an important cut that is my friends. But we’ll get back to this leap after the overview.) Will meets a woman on the ferry named Isla. And after a fairly intriguing start, the two say goodbye and go their separate directions.
Turns out Will is the son of Thomas – and the two of them have had zero relationship since… since when? Hrmmm. Intriguing. As Will arrives at the new home base for Thomas’ work he finds that Thomas is being “rebooted,” he’s currently dead, but will be brought back in a moment. And as Will looks around the estate he begins to realize that Thomas has created a cult. You have all the people in different colored jumpsuits, performing different tasks. You have the unquestioned leadership of a religious-like, cultish leader espousing crazy beliefs about the afterlife.
But Thomas (anyone other than me confused by his name? Thomas? Doubting Thomas? And yet, he’s the strong pedagogical leader?) is clearly not done. He isn’t going to stop. In fact, he says, “I haven’t gone far enough with my research, we opened a door and now we need to show them what is behind it.”
So Will storms off and heads to the beach. Wait, someone remind me why he headed to the beach exactly? hrmmm. Which is when he coincidentally stumbles across Isla again. Who, appears to be strapping weight to her chest – Isla is planning on drowning herself. But… and this is the key to the entire movie, … but Will dives in and saves Isla’s life. And so Isla finds herself taking a survey with Thomas in order to gain entry and a place in this wild cult-like-experiment of his.
But something big happened with Will’s mother. We start to see hints of this as Isla starts to ask questions about why Will gave her his mom’s maiden name, etc. “My mother died because of my dad.” Eh,? Was she a believer in The Discovery? Was she overwhelmed by her husband’s autocratic tendencies? Was she just depressed? Regardless, Thomas invites both Will and Isla to a special intimate gathering to see where Thomas’ research is going and where his drive is concentrated on.
The New Discovery Detailed
Thomas had published his research that after death, all humans head to some other place. He definitively proved this was a fact. (We never really get the details of The Discovery beyond that assertion.) But he realized that this may not actually be a good thing. People who die could actually be going to a terrible place, or a void maybe even? Who knows? So Thomas has decided that it would be important to not only share with the world that we definitely go somewhere, but to also share where it is that we go.
The only problem? The research could make the person being studied a vegetable. So how could they possibly do the research? A cadaver. Will and Isla were asked to go find a body.
As they head to the morgue, Toby heads into talk to the guy running the shop, and he says, “Hey there, how’s it going…” And the response from the coroner was, “In the midst of life, I am in death.” Toby’s response? “Well, that was weird.” hahah. And any time a line like that sticks out I have to know more. So, mid-movie, I hit pause and looked that line up. And apparently that is the name of a poem that I want to quote for you here…
The room is full of dark light,
Not a spark to ignite my mind.
The misty promises fade,
Leaving no trails behind.
Walking down the unknown road,
Holding together the loose ends.
Am hoping for a shooting star,
But all I get is a cloudy sky.
Stars look down from the heaven,
And mock at me with no regrets.
I try to keep up with the pace of life,
but it seems like am losing in the race.
Telling myself this is not the end,
Keeping my hopes high.
Not listening to the monster inside,
I keep walking in the search of light.
I challenge the heavens,
And keep chasing the nights.
In the midst of life,
I am in death.
I had never heard of this poem or the poet, Aayushi Saxena. Not sure if it was intentional, as this poem was only written until 2014. But I loved the poem. I also learned a ton of how the phrase was used in the Church, and also spirituality, for the past 1200 years even. But I’ll talk more about this phrase in the recap below. I did want to say though that I adore the idea of responding to greetings with poem titles. hahaha.
Once they found their cadaver, Isla, Tory, and Will head back to the grounds to perform the experiment. But unbeknownst to everyone else, Will had sabotaged his father’s machine. And when he put the pieces back together again he was able to see video supposedly from the cadaver’s afterlife experience. There were a number of key details we learned through watching this video:
- Video was of a nearby hospital
- Close enough for Will to visit and check out
- The hospital was remodeled blocking the hallway in the past decade
Later, during an all team meeting with the people living at the estate Lacey, a member of the team for the past few years, was invited up front. And she was called out by Thomas for something she had said about Isla being invited to a meeting that she hadn’t been included in. And for that Thomas told her to pack up her stuff and leave. “Please don’t lose faith in me…” “I have such contempt for that word… faith… pack up your belongings and go.”
Pat Phillip’s Discovery
And from here on out, the movie takes on a life of its own and rabbit trails down an investigative alley way. Will and Isla are trying to figure out exactly what this video’s of, and what it means. And in the investigation Will and Isla figure out that the video is actually of Pat’s lost opportunity. We learn that Pat hadn’t actually gone in to visit his father 13 years ago. We learn that Pat actually got a matching tattoo with his sister years before of waves. But in the video, it’s a lighthouse. What does it mean? And eventually, Thomas plugs himself into the machine and we see him actually turn his wife around and in effect, in order to talk her out of committing suicide. So now, now we know, that the ‘afterlife’ was actually a second chance, a second opportunity that allowed the dead to rectify a major failing in their life. At least, that was the theory anyway. No one really knew for sure.
A Death and a Discovery
During a big meeting with everyone at the estate, Lacey came back and shot Isla. “I didn’t kill her… I just relocated her.” Which unlocked a chain of events that speed us towards our conclusion. I had assumed that Will would put Isla into the machine to see her afterlife. But that isn’t the direction it goes at all. Instead, Will gets in the machine himself and in effect, kills himself. And blam… Will finds himself back on the ferry.
Isla – “You’ve been coming here over and over again. Your first time you didn’t even leave the ferry. And eventually you read that a woman committed suicide. Your death brought you back here over and over again.”
Will – “What am I supposed to change? I am supposed to save you, keep you from getting shot.”
Isla – “There is more than one way to save someone.”
Will – “Will I come back here again?”
Isla – “No, you already saved me, you’ll go somewhere else.”
Will – “Will I remember you?”
Isla – “I hope so.”
And with that, Will dies in the real world fully and finally. And he heads to the moment on the beach when Oliver, Isla’s son, died while she slept. And in a touching moment, Will prevents Oliver’s death. And in that final moment, there is a glimmer in his eye, and we see that he really does remember Isla, and the significance of what he had just done.
But What Does The Discovery Even Mean?
One of the things that I adored about this movie is that it grappled with death when most of society actually goes out of its way to avoid even conversing about it. We have institutionalized death and created jobs and services to shove death behind the veil. We have avoided discussing it. And beyond the occasional funeral wherein we spend the entirety of our time saying to ourselves, better them than me, we don’t encounter death at all.
But here in this movie we encounter a world wherein the conditions are perfect to discuss death, the afterlife and the results of our lives. We see that a lot of blame is placed on religion for causing suicides, and desire to punch out to a ‘better life’ a ‘better alternative.’
If you look at the picture that The Discovery Movie paints for this alternative view of the afterlife it’s a pretty simple view. Basically The Discovery is positing a new view of a Hinduistic or Buddhist perspective on reincarnation. Sure, it’s a short handed/looping view of reincarnation. But that is what it is positing. In Buddhism, the goal is to achieve perfection through constantly retrying and redoing a failed life. And as enlightenment is achieved you walk closer and closer to that perfection necessary to arrive at Nirvana.
This is played out by Will keeping Isla from committing suicide initially, and then preventing the death of her son. But stop! Isla died before Will did. And we see that she is there on the ferry and has realized what was happening. She had realized this consciously. Enough even to tell Will what was going on in his death cycle. But in her death, she would have obviously returned to the death of Oliver… not to her own death. Her big screw up, big missed opportunity is clear to us. We know that she regretted more than anything else the death of her son. Right?
So, could it be that the Isla on the ferry was actually just Will’s own internal monologue of what he had discovered talking to? Could it be that he and Isla were on separate paths? Until, that is, until Will made it into Isla’s version of the afterlife? One layer deeper? But is this wild conjecturing actually helping us any?!? Why don’t we just dive into some possible theories to help us understand this movie.
The Discovery Theory #1 – Death is a Dream
When this movie is over we realize one thing that is fact. Will has been dead all along. His death journey started on the ferry and continued on until he met Isla on the ferry again and she informs him that he has been living this loop indefinitely. And actually when he started he didn’t even leave the ferry. But eventually he caught on and realized what his goal was. But could it be that this is just one big gnarly/gnasty dream that is just not letting go of him? You can’t prove me wrong on this particular theory. It just is.
The Discovery Theory #2 – A Set of Recursive Loops
This movie starts in a sub-recursive loop of possibility. Will starts on the ferry and fails at saving Isla, and does the loop again, forgetting that he had attempted this once before. To this end it sort of reminds me of the movie ARQ. Just a bunch of loops layered on loops of layered loops. What happens after son is saved? Back to when he ruined someone else’s day? In programming a loop is just something that iterates until another thing is true.
A=1; IF A=3 End; A=A+1 ;Loop
But this particular loop has two deeper technology loops occurring simultaneously.
A=1 & Z=Patrick; If A=3 and Z=Oliver End; A=A+1 & Z=Z+1 ; Loop
Not sure if that made sense? But basically Will is looking for his meaning. He’s trying to find why he’s been placed in this chaotic loop and what would allow him out… even though he doesn’t know he’s looping. But Will needs to know what it is he’s supposed to do. (Which, I can sort of relate to.) But until he figures out that not only is he supposed to save Isla, but also Oliver… he’s stuck. And yet… who’s to say he isn’t supposed to figure out a third layer after saving Oliver?
The Discovery Theory #3 – Will is on a Sisyphean Journey?
Are these loops at all, or are they constant and perpetual punishments for a deeper wrong? Recently I reviewed Triangle, and talk about a Sisyphean boulder pushing experience! Could that be what is going on here? Will has committed a wrong somewhere along the line? Maybe he too has an involvement with his mother’s suicide? Or some other failing that we aren’t aware of yet. Could he just be walking this path of punishment that is recursive and forever?
The Discovery Theory #4 – Will Achieved Heaven
Or, could it be that Will has actually arrived at heaven, and that is just a perfect state of being with Isla and Oliver still alive? Could it be this is the end of the forking and the possibilities? I don’t know what are your thoughts as to the ending of this complicated movie?
Edited by, CY