The Discovery: Film Review and Unfinished Thoughts on Death

by Kolby Solinsky

Editor, White Cover Magazine

The Discovery is probably a brilliant movie.

It’s not brilliant. But it is a movie and brilliant as an adjective (i.e. “Oh, that’s a brilliant movie” or “Ronaldo with a brilliant free kick”) is different than brilliance as a noun. It’s an overused compliment, the kind that gets inserts when “good” or “very good” or “terrific” or “excellent” feel like they’re just not enough or not original anymore.

And spoilers beware. But when you see the final hook – when it’s revealed that Jason Segel’s been dead for the whole film, and I’d question whether the “The Discovery” was ever made or whether it’s a part of his post-death dream loop – it’s not a total surprise, or a shock of any kind. Not that you see or notice the breadcrumbs being unveiled to you throughout the movie, more that this isn’t a new or unique twist to end with. Perhaps if The Discovery came out in 1998, one year before The Sixth Sense, this plot would hit a little harder. Maybe if Westworld didn’t just take us through one insanely complex, well-done season of the same question – is this real or am I a figment of my own imagination?

And the plot does falter, because the plot’s not necessarily that important to the film. Nor is it why you’re watching. As David Sims wrote for The Atlantic, “The Discovery poses a fascinating existential question to its audience, but doesn’t quite manage to fill in a plot around it.”

But the film does raise several questions, all of which are intriguing enough to make you buffer and play.

And like any good fantasy flick, the fantasy here is set in something familiar. It’s set in reality. The world of The Discovery isn’t futuristic, really – there are no flying cars or hover boards or pill-portion entrees, just advanced knowledge – and it’s not post-modern or dystopian. The beaches are the same as ours, as are the televisions and the clothes. Like any snackable piece of science-fiction or far-fiction, say Harry Potter or Star Wars or The Hunger Games, the things that matter in an unrecognizable future or past are so very recognizable, after all – love, hate, greed, stupidity, bravery, scale. And religion, of course. Which is to say, human nature. Religion is so very un-divine, and always has been.

The Discover paints the afterlife as paradise, as the afterlife has mostly been painted. The afterlife is the fantasy, you’re led to believe. Even though, like Heaven or whatever else we’d call the afterlife in 2017, nobody in the film truly knows what that fantasy is like. That’s what makes it a fantasy, duh.

But the real fantasy here, which becomes clear almost immediately, isn’t that there’s some place better. Heaven isn’t a heaven, so to speak.

The real fantasy isn’t dying and living in the afterlife. The real fantasy, in fact, is being the last person alive on earth.

Or being the last people alive on earth. Because as more and more commit suicide in The Discovery, post-The Discovery, earth becomes a playground. Earth loses its responsibility and its burdens. Earth isn’t crowded and life isn’t painful. In fact, once the majority are dead, the afterlife becomes the painful, long, boring, never-ending one. Heaven becomes crowded. And what if the afterlife has an afterlife? Why couldn’t it?

When we meet Segel’s character, he’s riding a ferry and there’s nobody else there. He’s alone. (I mean, we learn that Rooney Mara is also physically on the ferry, but he’s basically alone.) It’s like a zombie apocalypse without the zombies.

And isn’t that the dream? Like when Tom Cruise runs through an empty Times Square in Vanilla Sky, who hasn’t wanted to do the same? Think about that the next time you’re squeezing between shoulders and smelly armpits and cabs in New York City, squinting under the never-sleeping lights and billboards that lose their novelty the minute you step in pigeon shit. Think about riding an empty ferry the next time you have to arrive an hour early to load your car, the next time you’re piling off with a million others from deck to dock.

Life is heavy because there’s a bunch of shit we can’t answer, can’t figure out, can’t fix.

So what happens when the questions are answered, the figures are out, and it’s all fixed.

Is that perfect? Is that paradise?

Is that even life?