There’s a land beyond the valley of a nihilist’s dream and an existentialist’s nightmare. And it is that very volatile terrain where Trevor Peckham’s emotionally ambiguous directorial debut, Discontinued, drives us. Essentially an antithesis to the Primer-s of the sci-fi cinematic universe—an uncharted genre within the genre—films like Discontinued use the make-believe scientific advancements as a safe channel through which the films can hoist questions that are otherwise too uncomfortable to ask. Not many of us would be willing to put ourselves through a journey that would inevitably rile up our intrusive thoughts had an incentive of entertainment not been offered to us. And that is something the film has achieved with flying colors while making us look into Sarah’s crippling existential crisis. Before I even begin answering all the questions you may have about what goes down in Trevor Peckham’s film, I would urge you to take off your The Matrix goggles and walk through Discontinued with a fresh mind.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘Discontinued’?
Sarah isn’t someone you would wish you could relate to. For starters, her debilitating depression and anxiety have made it impossible for her to put her very expensive college degrees to better use than the career of a door-to-door solar panel saleswoman. And that wouldn’t surprise you once you’ve had a closer look at what a day in her life looks like. Sarah is awfully disillusioned with the hope of a better future. If you dared to suggest a “glass half full” scenario to her, chances are you’d be walking away with a drenched face. From the melted icebergs to just how insufferable people can be, every aspect of the ever-crumbing world and its human inhabitants triggers Sarah into living (or, should I say, surviving?) with constant dread and crippling anxiety.
Two years of paying through her nose for a therapist who couldn’t be more useless with his generic “just stop worrying” advice if he tried have done nothing to help Sarah find the silver lining in the coal-black that is her very existence amongst people she can’t be herself around. And it’s not even for lack of effort. You would think that the universe had a personal score to settle with Sarah when you see her on a date with the supremely narcissistic, tremendously intolerable, walking-talking red flag that is Tucker. Existing in a hopeless world as someone she doesn’t even recognize anymore eventually gets to be too much for Sarah. So she opts for a bottle of pills and decides to let go before the world lets go of her. And that is when life as she thought she knew it changed entirely with a peculiar broadcast letting her know that nothing is real after all.
Who Is The Guide?
Did your mind for once at least go to the possibility that everything else that happens to Sarah after popping the pills is a hallucination she is having as her body shuts down? Because mine did. But for the sake of how the film plays out, we might as well play along. It takes a while for Sarah to internalize the fact that the world she’s been living in is one of the many simulations created by an evolved, superior race of people from the future who wanted to scrutinize the effect of a myriad of variables on the actions and the existential conditions of mankind. An eerily cheerful host (played by the fantastic Langston Fishburne, whom his father must surely be proud of) lets her and all the people on earth in on the two options they get to choose from in the imminent event of their simulation being terminated. The wildly unpopular option A offers people a chance to exist in the discontinued simulation all alone, without any intrusion from the outside. And what most people evidently choose is option B, which lets you transfer your consciousness into a simpler host, and you get to live an eternity of pure bliss with your five best memories playing on a loop. Sarah is almost convinced that she’s being messed with until an AI called The Guide, who looks the same as the host she’s seen on TV, shows up at her doorstep to help her through the process of making the right choice. Sarah’s standoffish cynicism stands in the way of her trusting The Guide at first, but as soon as she accepts that he’s in fact an AI, it gets easier for her to let him in.
How Does The Truth Affect Everyone?
When the world is about to end, the outcasts have the time of their lives. Time and again, Sarah has been advised to let go of the troubling thoughts of all that she can’t change. Now that she’s been enlightened to the fact that nobody ever had any control over anything whatsoever, she’s finally free of the anxieties that haunted her day and night. But not everyone is taking the news of the world ending with a smile on their face. Sarah’s therapist, for one, is losing his mind over how pointless it all was, despite his best efforts. There’s a crucial observation to be made here about how baby boomers have been coaxed by their self-importance into believing that they had it all figured out until the millennials came along with their “bratty” crisis and their entitlement. It’s curious to note how a millennial is stuck in the hamster wheel of providing her labor as a barista even when she knows that there won’t be another paycheck. Wild how the promise of no consequence brings out the most peculiar truths that people are otherwise too restrained to embrace or act on.
The prime examples of that are Sarah’s father and her best friend Kayla. While the former takes advantage of the impending apocalypse and is relieved of the necessity of covering himself with clothes, the latter drowns herself in a shroom-induced sense of nirvana. How Sarah’s mother is the least rattled of all by the doomsday that’s supposed to take place in a few more days can either mean that she’s satisfied with the life she has lived or the very opposite possibility that she’s been so miserable that the world’s death is a small price to pay for the sweet release. Yet the fact that Sarah’s parents have chosen to go on the Fiji trip they’ve been putting off for years is proof that they’d in fact lived a happy life, and they want to end it on a happy note, alongside their beloved. How Sarah’s pseudo-enlightened landlord reacts to the world ending is subtly critical of how insignificant materialistic achievements are when contrasted to the bigger picture. His Wall Street life had made him happier than he could’ve ever hoped to be. But when the end of the world and the ineffectuality of all his achievements besiege his consciousness, all he’s left with is an extreme nihilism that is as freeing as it is concerning.
How Does The Guide Open Sarah’s Eyes?
A strange wave of tranquility has washed over Sarah ever since she came to know that she didn’t need to alter herself for the comfort of the world. That feeling only grows tenfold for Sarah at the possibility of living in a world where there’d be no one to judge her, muffle her peculiarities, or even just bother her general existence. The Guide declining to answer her question about the other Sarahs he’s met in other simulations is more of an admission than anything else. Why he stops her from prying into it any further is to keep her decision from being influenced by the decisions the other Sarahs have made. Sarah is quick to choose option A and is ready to thrive in a world where she’ll be left alone. She wouldn’t even have prodded the truth out of The Guide had it not been for her dad filling her mind with doubts about the state of the world when a simulation is abandoned by the superior humans. However, it’s entirely to Sarah’s credit for asking the right set of questions in the first place.
The variable that Sarah’s world was tested on has been the existence and the lack thereof of The Great Auk–a species of flightless birds that fell victim to human greed and became extinct in the 19th century. The lesson that I believe the superior humans have learned from the extinction of the birds, has to do with the acute cruelty that the people of this simulation are capable of. The Great Auks were once significant to Native Americans and began facing immoral exploitation when the European explorers got their hands on them. The flightless birds were robbed of their existence when a fisherman killed the last pair. The horrid panic attack that Sarah goes through after realizing that the end was mankind’s fault after all nudges her to opt for eternal bliss. If you were to note the religious symbolism and recognize the parallels between the concept of God and the “superior beings” that created the earth, you may as well go the distance and see how the termination of the simulation isn’t too unlike the notion of the biblical Doomsday—in both scenarios, the sins of mankind bring forth the end of days.
‘Discontinued’ Ending Explained – What Does Sarah Finally Choose?
Due to the slowly unfolding nature of what’s actually going to happen to people when their simulation is terminated, it takes a while for Sarah to make up her mind about which way she would go. And when the exhaustion of the ordeal and the disillusionment strike, Sarah hits a destructive zen and lets go of her inhibitions. She even willingly goes to the “end of the world” party that her landlord organizes to let loose before it’s time to bid the planet Earth goodbye. The more Sarah sees of the people around her, the more she is convinced that their delusion and complete self-absorption are what make life on Earth unbearable. It’s entirely my personal speculation when I say that it might have been how detached she felt from the screeching crowd around her when the clock struck 12 that made Sarah choose to stay on and live the peaceful life of a hermit in the abandoned simulation.
Life seems to be working out great for Sarah. All alone, with no one to run into as she goes on her hikes, bike rides, and scavenges for supplies. She really couldn’t be happier in a world without the company of another person. Even the lack of basic amenities doesn’t stand in the way of Sarah peacefully dozing off and, even to her own surprise, waking up with a smile on her face. It’s ironic that when we saw Sarah’s therapy session for the first time, she mentioned that it’s not death from an apocalyptic event that scared her; it’s surviving in the aftermath. And when her wildest fear became true, Sarah realized that getting to be herself is a pro that outweighs all the cons of living in solitude. She’s kept up with her sessions even without the therapist, who, like most people, chose eternal bliss. She’s got no problem pouring her heart out to herself and acknowledging the wonderful self-discovery that she has attained in the absence of any outside influence. The religious connotations are made more obvious by Sarah’s surroundings, which resemble the beauty of the Garden of Eden, complete with bountiful apple orchards and a self-sufficient Eve.
Trouble brews when Sarah’s eyes meet the unlikeliest person to have chosen to stay on. Apparently, Tucker made the wild choice of living out his days in solitude. If you ask me, his reason might have been the absolute narcissism that made him think that he was too important to be wiped off. But people can surprise you. Being alone for over two years has granted Tucker the time to do some soul-searching, and he’s evidently conceded that he used to mask his insecurities with his hideous bully persona. And yet, sadly, he’s not learned the crucial lesson of taking no for an answer. When Sarah shoves an exuberantly clingy Tucker and ends up accidentally killing him, the feeling of loneliness that she has been evading for two years washes over her with all its immensity. Thankfully, for Sarah, The Guide hadn’t given up on her after all. It could even be considered a tinge of empathy he’s learned from the sentient beings he’s in charge of looking after that makes him come back for Sarah and once again present her with the option of eternal bliss.
It’s strangely humane of the AI to let Sarah know that she’s the strongest and truest of all the Sarahs that he’s ever known. Sarah was minutes away from dying when The Guide showed up, and the sheer stress of the circumstance made her puke up the pills. But not all the Sarahs from all the other simulations were quite so lucky. Some of them had already succumbed to their wretched depression before they even got to know the truth about the world they lived in. But that doesn’t necessarily make Sarah feel stronger than the other versions of her. She admittedly doesn’t believe in the generic idea that suicide is the easy way out and that only the weak choose it. She understands the magnitude of the pain it takes for someone to end their life.
The ending scene of Discontinued is intentionally ambiguous to let us draw our own conclusions, just like Sarah and all the people in her simulation were given the option to choose their own. And yet, any choice is a paradox that ebbs and flows with countless little triggers, sometimes even circumstantial, of the human condition. Sarah’s content look in the mirror as she bags the bottles of pills and bikes to the lake is evocative of her dreadful state right before she decided to pop the pills and end her pain. Would she throw the bottles in the lake, or would she try to kill herself again? Would she stay on and rekindle the blissful dynamic she had with the abandoned simulation, or would she follow The Guide into an eternity of guaranteed happiness? There’s more than enough reasoning to explain each of the variables. The conclusion, interestingly, is up to you, your current state of mind, and what you would wish for Sarah.