*Warning: This article contains spoilers for the new Netflix original, The Discovery.*
The Discovery doesn't hesitate to jump head first into its premise; setting the tone from the off, Netflix's new sci-fi opens with a televised interview with Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), a scientist who has made a huge discovery — the afterlife exists. The life-shattering revelation has had a ripple effect the world over, with millions of people, including well-known celebrities, killing themselves to see what is on the other side.
Thomas dismisses responsibility for the mass suicides, instead explaining how his research has proven that, rather than living a finite lifetime, once our body dies, our consciousness moves on to another plane of existence. As the opening scene closes with a crew member thanking Thomas before shooting himself in the head, a significant problem arises — although life after death has been confirmed, where the "soul" goes is unknown.
The premise of explaining The Discovery ending centers around that issue. Following the sombre opening, the film flashes two years into the future, where Will (Jason Segel) is aboard a boat heading for a remote island, when he has a chance encounter with Isla (Rooney Mara), a woman he recognises but has never met before.
As he parts ways with Isla, Will meets his brother, Toby (Jesse Plemons), and it's revealed that they're the sons of scientist Thomas. Following the phenomenon of mass suicides, Thomas is living in the wilderness, and has set up a rehab center to give new purpose to those affected with suicidal thoughts following the revelation of #TheDiscovery.
Will — a neurologist who is deeply skeptical toward the obsession with transitioning to the afterlife — has arrived with the intent of getting his father to publicly announce he was wrong. But Thomas refuses, and tells him he is on the cusp of revealing what the afterlife has in store.
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The Discovery Of The Afterlife Isn't What It Seems
Later, Will is at a nearby beach when he again sees Isla. Realising she is about to drown herself, he rushes in to save her, before taking her to his father's rehab center. This sparks a chemistry between the pair, who team up to try and find out more following an announcement by Thomas that his new machine can record the experiences of those entering the afterlife.
Unfortunately, the system is too dangerous to use on a living being, with a high risk of brain damage. After stealing a corpse (named Pat) and trying the new device, it appears to have failed. However, when Will looks at the machine alone, he discovers that it has recorded a fuzzy image of what appears to be the deceased visiting a relative in hospital, not a higher, celestial dimension.
When Will locates the hospital, he realises the recording shows an an event from decades prior, leaving him to deduce that the afterlife doesn't exist. Instead, the machine only detects memories, undermining the whole mania of suicides. Will then confides in Isla, and the pair visit the woman in the video, who is the sister of Pat. When questioned, the woman reveals that Pat never attended the hospital, in contrast to what the video depicts.
Nietzsche's Concept Of Eternal Return
It's not until Thomas uses the machine on himself, flatlining and entering the state of limbo without telling the others, that the truth becomes apparent. Thomas's wife (and Will's and Toby's mother) committed suicide years prior, and while using the machine, the video display shows Thomas going back to that decisive moment and changing the chain of events, saving his wife shortly before he is revived.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's theory on eternal return is a concept that the universe, our individual lives and the events in it, loop over and over, for an infinite amount of time. What the machine discovers is not only that this theory appears correct, but that there's another element: After death, this other "loop" is instead a parallel dimension, where events can be changed in the way Thomas and the recently deceased Pat had done.
While eternal return raises questions of regret and choice — this identical reality repeats endlessly — in #Netflix's The Discovery, this is a more optimistic interpretation, as each person is given infinite chances to put right wrongs, to live differently and change the error of their ways or help others, although they have no memory of previous lives. This leads us on to The Discovery ending.
'The Discovery' Ending Explained
After Isla is shot and killed by a scorned and jealous member of the rehab group, Will deliberately enters a state of comatose and uses the machine to try and change the course of her destiny. He loses consciousness and ends up back on the boat, this time aware of how events unfold. When he finds Isla, sitting in the same place, she tells him this is only a memory, and he's entered a form of near-death dimension that allows him to see the nature of things as they are.
This moment isn't a new reality, yet, but instead a shadow of what will be. Isla tells Will that in his "first life," he had second thoughts and didn't leave the boat to see his father. He later heard of Isla's suicide, and was overcome with guilt, believing he could've saved her. Once he died years later, he returned to that moment on the boat, over and over again, across many parallel scenarios, until he "saved" her.
Isla tells him that this time, she was saved. Although she was shot and killed, presumably her relationship with Will, and the cathartic nature of him rescuing her from suicide, righted that particular wrong. She then tells Will that next time he dies, he'll end up "someplace else," with no recollection of any of the previous realities. Will promises to remember her before he hears Thomas and Toby attempting to revive him. He then flatlines.
In what becomes a #scifi amalgamation of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Donnie Darko, Will — who died either on the machine or at a later date — awakens on a beach in what we can call reality "C" (in reality "A" he left the boat, in reality "B" he falls in love with Isla and saves her). He sees a little boy run into the sea, and walks in to save him. Isla then reappears, but neither of them recognise each other — at first.
Earlier, Isla explains how her son died from an accident after she fell asleep for a few minutes. In this final scene, Will — having saved Isla from suicide — has now returned to the point of her earlier tragedy, saving her son before he drowns. As Isla walks away, Will has a flash of recognition — he's remembered the previous "dimension."
Did you enjoy The Discovery? And would you live your life the same way again?