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The Discovery - Movie Review

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the film, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.

The Discovery is a science fiction Netflix Original that was released in 2017. The movie was written by Justin Lader and Charlie McDowell (also the director), starring Jason Segel as Will, Rooney Mara as Isla, and Robert Redford as Thomas.

Thomas is a brilliant scientist, and one that has made perhaps the most significant discovery in history—proof of an afterlife. However, this breakthrough has come at a high price—suicide. Lots and lots of suicides. A million-plus deaths quickly turns into several million, as people look for an easy way out, a way to reset, to start over. No one knows what lies beyond, and no one seems to care … because, it has to be better than this life, right?

Thomas' son, Will, meets Isla on a ferry, and the two get to talking, a bit awkwardly at first, a bit awkwardly later as well. But they talk nonetheless. After the boat-ride comes to an end, Isla is hitchhiking from the dock into town, and during the wait Will tells her how he died as a child; died for a complete one minute that is, and consequently, he fabricated an elaborate story about the hereafter. Isla asks:

Isla: Why would you make all that up?

Will: I think it's our instinct to search for meaning, and when there is none, it's our instinct to create meaning and we just … lie. We lie to ourselves.

Isla catches a ride with a stranger, Will grabs one with his brother, Toby, who takes him to their father's castle-like adobe, which houses individuals who have lost their way in life. Some have tried to kill themselves several times. Toby explains:

These people were all affected by the Discovery. Some of them arrived here after two or three failed suicide attempts. We gave them a home, something to live for in this life, a reason to contribute.

But what is Thomas giving them that is so important that they must continue on with their lives, not to commit suicide? Well, as he would explain to Will after expelling one of his followers for questioning him:

Thomas: Come on, Will.  You think I don't know a lot of this is bullshit? You give meaning to people who think they have no more reason to live. The jumpsuit, the chain of command, the theatrics. It gives them purpose. And I care about them.

This sense of belonging coupled with a sense of family, of togetherness, and a mission to discover what lies beyond this life appears to be what keeps them going … along with the theatrics and the bullshit, of course. Oh, and by the way, Will saved Isla's life—stopped her from drowning herself, which will become kind of important as well, and partially explains how she got wrapped up in all this mess.

In addition, Will discovers that after his father fails to read the mind of a cadaver, that his experiment didn't actually fail, there was something there but everyone missed it. A recorded memory, another dimension, something, but he is not sure what. Eventually, he shares his revelation with Isla and the others. To Isla, he confides:

I have been thinking a lot about what something is and what something means. And I don't know what any of this is… but I do think if there's a meaning to any of it, it has something to do with not pressing the reset button, even if things get really rough.

Then … Isla dies. Shot by the follower Thomas banned. Distressed and dismayed, Will hooks himself up to the machine, which allows him entry into the afterlife. There he sees Isla, and she explains that every time he has died, he ends up back on the boat where they met. The first time, Will didn't even get off the ship, and Isla kills herself, something Will would come to regret always wonder if there was something he could have done. After a few tries, a few cycles of life and death, a few too many repetitions, he saves her, gives her a reason to live. So Isla explains that he is now dying again, and this time his life won't reset to their first meeting⁠—more specifically, he may not even remember her, and she may not remember him. He fulfilled his purpose and can now move on to a different life.

In the end, we see Will and Isla alive again, meeting by happenstance when Will saves Isla's son from drowning. Neither appear to remember each other.

So what does the movie tell us about the meaning of life? It appears that in this fictional universe, we live the same life repeatedly until we do precisely what we're supposed to do, and then we move on to the next. If we muck up, no worries, life just resets until we get it right. For Will, his purpose was to help Isla find her reason for being. Hence, perhaps we can all take a lesson or two from this story. Help others, hope and pray we live a perfect life, if not, expect to relive it over and over, miserably, until you get it right. Okay, so the movie makes the idea look so much more beautiful, so much more romantic. But is it really, if you lived the same life 100 times, minus a detail or two, and only one was "correct," is that horror or splendor? You be the judge.

Movie rating:

Overall - 5

Meaning of Life Relevance - 6

Uniqueness – 6

Did you see the movie? If so, what did you think? Horror or splendor?

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