This is a film with one of the most peculiar storylines that questions the existence of an afterlife. Charlie McDowell’s perplexing feature “The Discovery” posits philosophical theories blended with science fiction to shape a thought-provoking narrative. The titular discovery is about a machine invented by the scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) that catches the wavelengths at the subatomic level to screen what happens in the afterlife. This starts a wave of rampant increase of suicides all over the world. People want to escape their life and start fresh somewhere else. Though scientific curiosity is what drives Thomas to create a life-changing device, it is revealed to him that his experiment has a more significant impact on the world. It shows a picture of a society where humans will stop relying on hope that will lead them to their downfall.

To stop this wildfire of escalated suicide rates started by his father, Will Harbor (Jason Segal) challenges the discovery made by his father. Will visits a secluded mansion where his father is staying, conducts more experiments, and calls it a cult. However, he is soon taken by surprise. Apart from the gothic mansions and uncanny experiments, “The Discovery” has an overall bleak tone. Many characters like Isla are there to foreshadow mysterious details. Moreover, various interpretations of an afterlife complicate the plot. For example, it can be a person’s core memory, alternate reality, or subconsciousness.

The Discovery (2017) Plot Summary & Movie Synopsis:

“The Discovery” opens with an interview with a scientist named Thomas Harbor, who has found proof of an afterlife. It is revealed that as soon as he discovered it, there was an increase in the overall suicide rate in the world. Harbor calmly gives his interview and then is asked if he feels responsible for the deaths of so many people, to which he says no. When the interview is finished, a person from the crew shoots himself and dies instantly on air.

The Cult

Two years after the discovery about the afterlife is made, Will Harbor, Thomas’s son, is listening to the news on TV on a ferry. He meets a woman named Isla (Rooney Mara), who tells him she is going to the same island as him. After chatting for some time, Will tells Isla that she looks familiar. He also shares how he feels terrible about the suicide attempts that are being made by so many people. In contrast, Isla tells him that people find it an easy way to escape their harsh reality. Will recalls to Isla a fleeting memory from his brief moment of death, describing that he saw a young boy on the beach.

When they reach the island, Toby, Will’s brother, picks him up in his van and takes him to the mansion where his father lives. Will looks around and finds people living there who are Thomas’ helpers. Toby reveals that most of these are the ones who tried to kill themselves but found a new purpose in this facility. Before meeting his father, Will meets Thomas’ attendants, Lacey and Cooper. Thomas is wired to several machines and is unconscious. When he wakes up, Will tells him to stop these suicides as he is responsible for them and addresses the cult he has started by taking the affected people in.

The Miraculous Machine

The Discovery (2017) Movie Ending Explained & Themes Analysed
A still from “The Discovery” (2017)

As Will explores the island and steps on the beach, he finds Isla carrying weights in both her hands and running towards the ocean to kill herself. Will runs after her and saves her. He takes her to the mansion, where she finds that Will is Thomas’ son. Thomas makes Isla go through a series of questions that she answers, after which she is taken in. Later, Thomas holds a meeting and tells others that he has invented a machine that can screen and record the afterlife of a dead person.

Isla, Toby, and Will go to the morgue to steal the corpse of Pat Phillip, on which they could test the machine. While they wait in the car, Will tells Isla why he holds a grudge against his father. He shares how his mother killed herself on her anniversary because his father was busy with his work and didn’t come out of his room. After that, Thomas tries to hook the corpse to the machine, but nothing happens. When everyone leaves, Will notices the footage playing on the screen where Phillip is fighting with a woman in the hospital. He visits the hospital, thinking it may be a memory. He finds the corridor in the recording gone, as it was renovated a decade ago.

The Alternate Life

Thomas calls Lacey out during a meeting because she told others the machine won’t work. He also points out how he found her in the forest with a gun and doubts if she wanted to kill herself and is a victim. Subsequently, Thomas tells her to leave. Will tells Isla about the recording and what he saw at the hospital. Will believes that the afterlife could be a memory in which a person will live after death. However, this theory does not make much sense after they realize that Phillip’s only connection to the hospital is that his father was admitted there, but he never visited him.

Isla shares her secret with Will. She tells him that she had a son who died at the beach accidentally when she slept for a second. Will and Isla share a kiss when Toby barges in and calls them urgently. They find Thomas hooked to the machine. The screen is flashing with the video of him on the day his wife killed herself. Instead of going back to his room, he goes to her and stops her from killing herself. After waking up, he concludes that the afterlife is just an alternate reality that takes us to the moment we regret most. He, therefore, holds a meeting where he addresses this to prevent people from killing themselves and advises them to improve their existing lives. Forced from the mansion, Lacey crashes the meeting and shoots Isla, considering it’s a way to “relocate” her. Isla dies immediately.

The Discovery (2017) Ending Explained:

What Happens To Will Harbor In His Afterlife?

Isla’s demise devastates Will, and he hooks himself to the machine. He arrives on the ferry again, where he meets Isla for the first time. This time, Will knows her, and she knows him as well. She tells Will that it is just a memory and he keeps arriving here to stop Isla from killing herself. Only this time, it will work and they will move on. It is because he has now realized he is stuck in a loop. Thomas and Toby scream his name while trying to save him, but Will says he wants to stay. Isla tells him that now that he has saved her, it is time for him to die. So he tries to hold on to her memory and resolves that he will not forget her. Will dies.

The Discovery (2017) Movie Ending Explained & Themes Analysed
Another still from “The Discovery” (2017)

He wakes up on a beach and finds a little boy running towards the ocean. He saves him. Isla comes running towards them, thanks Will without each of them remembering one another, and leaves with her son. Will feels like he knows Isla, so he turns around and looks at her where the movie ends. The post-credit scene shows Thomas playing a guitar. It looks familiar to the same one Lacey had when she was kicked out of a meeting.

Why Did Will End Up On the Beach?

The moment death claimed Will in the real world, he found himself awakening on a beach, a place assumed to be his afterlife. However, as we know, the afterlife is an alternative life where one will live in the moment one regrets the most, and there is an interpretation for this. Will wakes up on the beach, maybe because the ultimate way of saving Isla is by saving her child. The only reason Will gets caught up in a loop is because he always fails to save Isla. But in his afterlife, he chose an alternate path, and that was way before they met in real-time. If Isla’s son wouldn’t die, Isla would not want to kill herself in the first place. He has always wished he could change this moment in his real life.

The Discovery (2017) Movie Themes Analyzed:


The whole concept of an alternate life is born due to the guilt of actions made by every human being that they want to change if given another chance. In the film, it is demonstrated through various characters. Thomas’ guilt is not spending time with his wife on his anniversary. Phillip wants to pay a visit to his dying father in the hospital because he carries guilt for not doing it when he was alive. Isla wants to save her son, who drowned because she slept for a few minutes. Lastly, Will feels guilty about being unable to save Isla, which he wants to rectify.

The Value of Human Connections

All the regrets portrayed in the film are directly connected to valuable relationships one has in his life. Phillip loves his father, Thomas loves his wife, Isla loves her son, and Will loves Isla. If it wasn’t for their relationships, they may not want to alter their lives and may go on to live it the way it is. It also conveys the message to not take our loved ones for granted and to spend time with them as long as possible.

The Escapist Mindset

The movie highlights how the world would look if there were a possibility of leading a brand new life. Instead of facing their problems, people will kill themselves for every minor inconvenience in the hope of finding a better future in the afterlife. The suicide rate in the world will increase as no one will stay happy or hopeful. In the film, Isla tries to kill herself because her son died, and she wants to start fresh. But once she is saved and forced to stay alive, she falls in love with Will, and in her last moments, she confesses that she doesn’t want to die anymore. It proves that facing reality will bring us more comfort than ending our lives, which will make us live those terrible moments again and again.

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The Discovery (2017) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
Cast of The Discovery (2017) Movie: Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough, Robert Redford
The Discovery (2017) Movie Genre: Romance/Sci-Fi/Mystery & Thriller | Runtime: 1h 50m

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