The Discovery is a philosophical sci-fi film brought to us by the newbie director Charlie McDowell. Jason Segel & Rooney Mara play the leads in the film. I say philosophical because the film takes a shot at presenting a rendition of after-life and the consequence of its knowledge. The theory is not most compelling but it was a good attempt. The actors have done a good job, nothing over the top. But enough with the review, let’s talk about the plot. Here’s the film The Discovery explained, spoilers ahead.
Will Harbor (Jason) and his father Thomas Harbor are working to find what happens to a person after their death. They create a machine that can capture brain wavelengths on a subatomic level which leave the body after death. It is Will who theorizes this – “It is my belief consciousness should be considered as another state of matter. Properties of consciousness arise from the physical laws that govern our universe”.
Thomas is so involved in his work that he begins to neglect his wife. One evening, on their anniversary, his wife prepares dinner. Thomas doesn’t even step out of his office. His wife goes upstairs and drowns herself in the bathtub. Will is unable to continue living in the house and he leaves. He gives up on the research too.
Thomas’ guilt leads him to carry on with his work because now he needs to know that his wife made it somewhere. Eventually, he is able to scientifically prove that a part of consciousness moves to a different plane of existence after one’s death. Once the discovery is announced to the world, the suicide rates go up. Now that there is proof for an afterlife, more people see this as a relocation and a fresh start.
Once the suicide rates reach a million, Thomas agrees to do a TV interview. This is the opening sequence of the movie. The journalist (Mary Steenburgen) is trying to sense if Thomas feels responsible for the many deaths. Thomas simply says “no”. Just then, a member of the crew thanks Thomas for his “fresh start” and blows his brains out.
What is the Afterlife?
I think it is important to stop and dive right into what the underlying concept here with the afterlife is. The different plane of existence that the consciousness gets transferred to, is not really an “afterlife” but more an “alternate life”. Let me clarify. When a person dies, a part of his consciousness is transferred to another version of his own life. Because it is only a part of his consciousness, this person can’t remember anything clearly from his previous life. The next time over, in the new life, this person relives the life but by making alterations of small decisions at a subconscious level. Which means that this person will go on and make small changes (second chances) and live an altered version of the previous life. Every death takes the person to a new version of his life, to the point he regrets the most. This revelation is made only at the end of the film. No one knows about this as of yet.
Will & Isla
Let’s continue with the plot. When Will finds out that the suicide toll has increased to a million, he decides that he needs to go back and stop his dad. On his way to his father’s place, he meets Isla (Rooney) on a ferry. Now, let’s get one thing straight. This conversation that we are shown with Isla, it’s not the first time. The first time, Isla and Will talk but he doesn’t get off the ferry. She does. She kills herself the next day and Will reads a news about it. He feels that he could have done something. And this thought never leaves him. Eventually, like all people, Will grows old and dies. From his next life on he slowly, subconsciously, begins to increase his conversation with Isla up until many lives. The conversation that we are shown is after numerous lives that Will has lived. Each life of his makes him want to save Isla more and more. Up until this life, the life of Will that we are going to follow in the film. So far, he has not succeeded in saving Isla in any of his prior lives. This moment with Isla is what he regrets most – not having saved her. So every time Will dies, he’s in his new life, back on the ferry. Again, because only a part of the consciousness moves to the next life, he is not able to remember his previous lives directly. However, during the conversation with Isla, he does feel like he’s met her before.
Moving on, Isla and Will talk. He connects with her. He leaves with Isla from the ferry. Once Isla hitches a ride, Will meets with his brother Toby. They both head back to Thomas’ new location where he has been continuing his research. The facility they go to once used to be a summer camp for troubled youths. The people who work there are all of those who have had a couple of failed suicide attempts. They’ve given them a home, something to live for in this life, a reason to contribute.
Thomas is testing the machine on himself. They put Thomas in a near dead state to take recordings of his mind and defibrillate him back to life. Will feels that his father has started a cult. He tries telling Thomas to put an end to the research as people a dying because of it. Thomas doesn’t agree.
Later he happens to see Isla at a distance putting weights in her bag and walking into the ocean. Now would be a good time to talk about Isla. She’s someone who once had a son. On a day at the beach, she happens to fall asleep and her son wanders into the waters and drowns. Ever since, she has been unable to feel anything. Eventually, she also hears about the discovery about the afterlife and she decides to end her own life. Now it’s important to know that he doesn’t know that killing herself would let her live another life where she can stop her son from dying at the beach. She just wants to die because she can’t deal with the burden of her life.
Isla’s Suicide Attempt
Will stops Isla from drowning. She’s angry with him for that. Will takes her back to the mansion. He tells Toby about it. Toby says that Isla will have to take a questionnaire before she can be inducted. This is when Isla finds out that Will’s dad is Thomas, the guy behind the proof to the afterlife. Thomas runs Isla through the questionnaire. She tells him that she might change her mind about the suicide if she gets to know more about her afterlife. Thomas decides she can stay.
Toby tells Will that Thomas has called for a special gathering, just a select group. At the gathering, Will tells Isla about his mother and how she died. Thomas announces that he is now able to record and see where one goes in their afterlife. Isla and Will bond a little more.
Stealing the dead
Later, Thomas, Toby, and Will talk about how that recording can be made. Thomas suggests that he could be in the altered machine but needs to be dead a lot longer for it to record anything. So they plan to steal a dead body from a morgue. Isla decides to help.
They head to a morgue. Toby goes in and makes up a story saying that his cousin Billy went missing. The guy at the morgue says that three unnamed bodies came in in the week. Toby goes in to check them out. He says none of them are Billy. Just as they leave, Toby puts a sticker to keep the door from locking. Will and Isla come in and steal one of the dead bodies. The body is that of a Pat Phillips.
Will and Isla get close
That night Isla sleeps on the bunk bed with Will. They talk about their childhood. Will tells Isla about his mother. Isla feels that she’s taking the spot of a person who might actually value life and that she doesn’t value hers. There is an interesting mention on the afterlife that is made. “Do animals have an afterlife? Bunnies, kittens, pigs, monkeys. What happens to them after they die? I mean, I feel like they really deserve an afterlife. Do they have their own animal afterlife? And if they do, is it subdivided by species? Because it feels like something as profound as an afterlife shouldn’t practice segregation”. This is an interesting element but the movie never circles back to this, too bad.
The next day, Thomas is testing his machine with Pat’s dead body. He tries to get a recording of Pat’s afterlife. They keep hitting it with electric pulses, but nothing shows up in the monitor. Will enters and tells them that if they keep going they will cremate Pat’s body right there in their lab.
Isla talks to Lacey. Lacey is someone who has witnessed her father and sister hanging dead in their living room. They do this right after the discovery. Like million others, they kill themselves to get to the afterlife. Lacey is odd because she feels left out from her family suicide.
Will and Isla return the body to the morgue. Well, they dump it at the entrance and make an anonymous tip about it. Back in the lab, it is disclosed that Will has bugged the screen to not show anything. He removes the bug to see what was recorded in Pat’s afterlife. Will still doesn’t want his father to discover anything further. He wants this entire discovery business to end so that people can go back to their present lives. When he looks into Pat’s recording, we see Pat getting to a hospital and walking down the corridors. He then sees his sister sitting with his ailing father. The footage ends.
Will locates the hospital from the footage and goes there to get medical records of people with “Phillips” as their last name. He finds that there have been 23 such. They obviously don’t share the patient records. Will uses the footage as a reference and walks the corridors. While he sees an open corridor on the footage, that hallway is no longer there. He asks one of the workers at the hospital if there used to be a hallway. The worker mentions that there used to be before they remodeled the place a decade ago.
Lacey is asked to leave
Later, Thomas calls for another meeting. Toby opens by playing them some guitar. Thomas calls upon Lacey to the stage. Thomas asks Lacey that in spite of him being wonderful to her, why she has been telling her peers that the machine is a failure. Lacey admits that she told this only to one person because she felt Isla is got an invite to the select group even though she just got here. Thomas asks Lacey how he found her in the woods. That Lacey had a gun to her chest rather than her head or in her mouth. Usually, a person trying to commit suicide for real would have had the gun to their head. Thomas had his doubts on Lacey actually wanting to commit suicide. He still took her in. He feels that she has let him down. He asks her to pack up and leave.
Will doesn’t like what Thomas does to Lacey. Later he takes Isla out to the parking lot of the hospital and shows her the footage of Pat. Isla mentions that based on the model of the truck, they can eliminate any Phillips from before the year 2000. Also, they can eliminate all Phillips from the last decade because that room hasn’t existed for a decade. They break in, somehow with a great deal of ease, and locate the record of a Connor Phillips, Pat’s father who died 13 years ago.
Will later talks to Toby tells him that their father is hell-bent on finishing up with the machine because he wants to know that his wife died and made it somewhere. He mentions that Thomas just overreacted and will be back to his senses and bring Lacey back.
The tattoos are different
Later Isla looks at the footage and concludes that it’s not a mere memory. The tattoo on the actual corpse of Pat was “waves” and not a “lighthouse” as they see on the footage.
Will takes Isla to a beach and tells her that when he was young, he had an accident and he almost died. At that time he happened to notice this beach. Something about the beach, he says, draws him. This is the same beach where Isla tries to kill herself. Something to note here is that this life that Will is living is one of many. In his prior lives, he was unable to save Isla, but he knows where she drowned herself. It is totally possible that this is the reason he’s drawn to the beach because he’s always trying to save Isla. This time around, his need to be at the beach was so intense that he happened to be there in time to save Isla from drowning. Isla tells Will about the son she once had who drowned because she slept. Now, it is totally possible that it is the same beach where it happened, this is probably why she comes back to this beach to drown and end her life.
They go to Connor Phillips’ address hoping to meet the lady in the video. They ask about Pat. The lady says that he was her brother and that to them he was a piece of shit. She tells them that Pat never visited her at the hospital. She also confirms that Pat and she have matching “waves” tattoos. This confirms that the footage (with the lighthouse tattoo on Pat) is not a memory.
Will says something profound – “We’re a bunch of people running around, making the same mistakes over and over. And I don’t know why we think it’ll be different somewhere else unless we learn what we’re supposed to while we’re here”. At this point, Will doesn’t know the way afterlife works yet. But the point here is that if one doesn’t understand their mistake in their current life, no amount of second chances would change anything. That night, WIll and Isla share a kiss.
Just then, Toby comes calling out to Will with a panic in his voice. Thomas has hooked himself to the machine to prove that it works. Will tells the rest that the machine already works, that he had bugged the screen. On the screen, they see the moment of their parents on that last anniversary. But this time around Thomas stops his wife from going upstairs. At this point, Thomas is not yet dead, so this is not an alternate life yet. But this is his deepest regret. From this, we know that the day Thomas dies, his next life will involve him stopping his wife from committing suicide. But not yet, they defibrillate Thomas back to life. Thomas recollects the events like a dream.
Right after, Thomas realizes that the afterlife is not a different plane of existence but a different plane of “this” existence, that people wouldn’t just have to accept their biggest regret. In the afterlife, they could change it. It’s like death takes you back to the moment you regret the most and if your conviction is strong, you can change that moment’s outcome. If this information were to get out, the suicide rates would just go through the roof. Thomas declares that they need to destroy the machine.
Thomas calls everyone in the facility and begins telling everyone how their research is not as important as much as their relationships are. Lacey interrupts the meeting with a gun. She shoots Isla and mentions that she’s not killed her, she’s just relocating her. Isla dies saying “I don’t wanna die anymore”.
Before Toby and Thomas can dismantle the machine, Will locks himself with the machine and uses it on himself. Will finds himself in a memory of himself back on the ferry. Now, this is a memory because Will is connected to the machine and is not yet dead. Isla here is his own subconscious. This is the moment he still regrets because according to him he’s not been able to save Isla even this time. In the memory, Isla lets him know that there are more than one ways to save a person. That though he has been living this part in loops in multiple lives, he’s been able to “save” her this time. Isla telling him this only means that Will is making peace with his own subconscious about saving Isla. Also because that, he would now end up someplace else in his next life.
Will begins to hear voices of Thomas and Toby. They are trying to jump-start his heart, but they are unable to. Will dies. Before he does, he tells himself that in his next life, he would remember Isla. WIll dies.
Back to the Beach
He ends up on the beach. It looks like on the day Isla’s son drowned, Will happened to be on the beach. Perhaps he ends up there because his subconscious tells him to. Or he just happens to be there by pure chance. While in other lives, he probably wasn’t really paying attention, and because of that, the little boy ended up drowning. But in this life, he has a subconscious knowledge of the drowning kid. He saves the kid. Isla comes running and takes her son away from the waters. Will and Isla speak for a short while, she thanks him before leaving. Will begins to walk away. But something in him tells him that he knows Isla. He stops and turns around. The film ends. We can imagine that Will perhaps asks Isla out for coffee or something after that. Or he has to die a bunch of times to figure asking her out for coffee. Life is truly messed up, if you think about it in this context.
There is a post credit scene too. It is a quick glimpse of the gathering jut beforeToby plays the guitar. It is this gathering where Thomas brings Lacey up and asks her to pack up and leave. It is this event that makes Lacey show up and shoot Isla. We don’t know who’s life this is, but we could assume that one of them is back at this point as it is a moment of regret. It is perhaps one of Thomas’ life. This moment causes Will to kill himself eventually. Thomas regrets throwing Lacey out and is back to change that.
Sadly, the film raises more questions than it cares to answer. Like I mentioned, it’s a good attempt but leaves us with a bunch of unanswered questions, and assumptions that we have to make to get to understand the film. Please do drop comments on things that I might have interpreted wrongly or missed out altogether.
Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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