As far as the movie-viewing experience goes, there might not be anything worse than becoming totally involved in a story, only to find the final solution to be lacking creativity, or glossing over important plot-points or consequences. And yet, we’ve all been there.
It seems fair to say that filmmakers sometimes seem to overestimate the power of revealing the truth. Writers everywhere can probably agree that one of the most difficult things to do is end a story well. This is especially true of complex narratives or Sci-fi stories, which can sometimes have too many possibilities. In the blur and chaos of plots, sub-plots and expectations, stories can sometimes fall short at the end, as they look for a quick fix.
Endings that try to explain away everything often miss some loose-ends (unintentionally, and it’s obvious), or simply wrap up too much too neatly to be satisfyingly believable. Suddenly, we appreciate the nuance of a beautifully crafted open-ending. Here are 15 movies that really didn’t have to fail us, until they did. And all of which could have been saved by a touch of graceful ambiguity.
Warning: this article contains spoilers.
15. War of the Worlds
Happy endings are certainly overestimated in this Spielberg epic, starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. This one is not only a Sci-fi disaster movie, it’s also every estranged father’s nightmare. Being left alone with his kids is made that much more difficult when aliens invade Earth.
After a very long journey, during which his teenage son takes off with the military to join the fight against aliens, Ray and his daughter arrive in Boston where his ex-wife is. Surprisingly, their son had also found her and the four are happily reunited. The closing narration (Morgan Freeman) asserts that aliens were not immune to Earthly bacteria, so humans win the battle.
Alternatively, the film could have been more believable with an open-ending that lets the audience question whether the fight can be won. The devastation would have more of an impact.
14. Black Christmas
A remake of a cult-classic is always going to be difficult water to tread. But if you’re going to do it, the trick is to retain the magic that made the original so special. In this case, it was the 1974 film’s dark ambiguous ending that made it truly terrifying.
To emphasize the creepiness of the scenario, the original Black Christmas never revealed who the killer was, and made it clear that he was still hiding in the house by the end. Jess (Olivia Hussey) was doomed. This time around though, the filmmakers decided to give the killer an extensive backstory, add a killer, and have both of them killed by the final girl, eradicating the sense of lingering doom created in the original.
This was an unfortunate decision. The whole film itself was absurd because of the desire to not only reveal the killer, but share his story. At the very least, an open-ending reminiscent of the original might have done it greater justice.
13. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Something like a futuristic dark fairytale, A.I. is without a doubt, an interesting picture. Like every good Sci-fi, it imagines a world in which technology has become a disruptive presence in everyday life, completely changing how we live, and subsequently, how we think.
Here, we have a family dynamic strained by the arrival of an artificial son, a robot boy who falls in love with his “mother” so completely, that our hearts break for him when he is sent away.
Convinced the blue fairy (from his favorite book, Pinocchio) can set things straight, David embarks on a long and dangerous journey. The dystopian atmosphere of the film suits what appears to be a solemn and devastating end, as David sits underwater for an eternity to wait for the blue fairy. He believes he will soon be reunited with his mother, but the audience knows it will not happen. It’s a perfect ambiguous ending to a sad tale, but suddenly there is a plot-twist and a less impressive ending is dragged out for another half-hour or so.
12. The Moth Diaries
This gothic-supernatural story, inspired by the original vampire story Camilla, does a good job at confusing the viewer. Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) becomes more and more distraught, as she watches her best friend sink into a nearly obsessive relationship with the new girl at school, Ernessa (Lily Cole). What bothers her the most is her instinct to distrust Ernessa.
It is clear that Rebecca is suffering from anxiety and a crippling abandonment issue, so when she starts to believe Ernessa is a supernatural being, she just may be going crazy. Either way, the dead bodies pile up and Rebecca becomes even more convinced.
The film ends with Rebecca trusting her gut, and killing Ernessa. Which is a little strange since she never found any hard proof. Still, the film could have benefitted from some open-endedness, and the continuing suggestion that Rebecca may have lost her mind.
11. The Descent
To be clear, the lackluster ending here only applies to the U.S. release, which had the final girl, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) make a miraculous escape at the very end. While that would have been great, it was also confusing.
After the group of friends find themselves trapped in a cave, things go from bad to worse, and viewers really do start to route for Sarah to make it out alive. But when she does, it is rather jarring. Excitement meets disbelief (and not in a good way), as you watch Sarah make her great escape. You can either decide to suck it up and accept the random happy ending, or head over to the Australian release version, which reveals the flee to be nothing more than the hallucination of a dying girl in a cave.
In this case, the open-ending does exist; it leaves Sarah trapped. But again, the U.S. version decided to go another way with it.
10. Near Dark
This largely forgotten vampire flick from the 1980s was created in a time before vampires were romantic. Instead, the film focuses on a clan of vampire-cowboys who thrive off of the violence they can afflict upon innocents. But when a rather mousy member finds herself attracted to a good-natured guy she meets at a bar, she can’t help but turn him.
Displeased with his change, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is all too happy to be rescued by his father and little sister. Once home on the farm, his father tells him he has an idea about how to cure him. A blood transfusion. After it works, Caleb is excited to see Mae (Jenny Wright) come back for him, and he cures her as well.
The ending is strange because Mae never expresses a desire to be “changed”; but aside from that, the entire concept of a cure for vampirism kind of takes away the mystery of the beast. It would have been better off letting the question of salvation linger in a thoughtful way.
9. I Am Legend
In post-apocalyptic times, it’s good to have an immune virologist by your side. Robert (Will Smith) is dedicated to developing a cure that will save humans, and after a lot of trial and error, he believes he has perfected it.
By the end, he and two other survivors he comes across end up trapped and surrounded by the infected. In a display of misplaced heroism, he gives them the vile of antidote and hides them somewhere safe. He then sets off a hand grenade, killing himself and all the infected. The survivors are shown heading to the survivor colony with the cure.
The completely unnecessary self-sacrifice is revoked for a much better open-ending in an alternate version. In it, Robert realizes the impact his experimenting on living beings has, and decides to give it up and head to the survivor colony with the cure he has already developed. Best to scrap the theatrical release altogether, since the alternate ending is generally preferred.
In this mysterious drama, a teenage boy, Simon (Devon Bostick) relays to his class a story he has written about the circumstances surrounding his parents’ death. He opens up completely, naming his father as a terrorist who used his mother without her knowledge to conduct acts of terrorism. The controversial story becomes the talk of the school and soon enough, the internet is loaded with opinions on the subject matter and even on Simon himself.
As the plot unravels, it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish which parts of Simon’s story are true, and which are fabricated. As he watches the controversy ignite, Simon also searches for some answers of his own. By the end, it is finally revealed that none of the story is true, and his parents were killed in a car accident when he was just a young boy.
This reveal takes away from the eerie affect the story and plot twists have on the viewer. While we always suspect the story to be untrue, it is better not to know for sure.
Linda Hanson (Sandra Bullock) is having a really bad day. Well, a really bad every-other-day, to be more accurate. After waking up to find that her husband has been killed in an accident one day, she awakes the next to find him alive and well. the trouble is, every other day, he is dead again. Although no one believes her, Linda dedicates every waking moment to trying to find the pattern, connect the dots, and save her husband to end the nightmare.
By the end, she has finally pinpointed the moment it will happen, and convinces him to pull over to avoid the collision she assures him is about to happen. However, as fate would have it, he is killed anyways. An epilogue shows that Linda is pregnant, proving she is no longer trapped in the premonition.
All-for-naught endings have a way of making viewers feel like they have wasted their time. This one could have benefited from an ambiguous cliffhanger, that implied death cannot be cheated, without outright showing it. This would have made it seem more thoughtful, and less a waste of time.
6. The Ward
A rare miss for John Carpenter, the legendary horror director (Halloween, The Fog), this one had all of the ingredients but was under-cooked. The 1960s setting was the perfect atmosphere to place a disturbed female character who may or may not be seeing a ghost. It was fashioned as a supernatural/slasher version of Girl, Interrupted, but had no follow-through.
By the end, Kristen (Amber Heard) is going out of her mind, investigating the mysterious deaths in the hospital, fearing she might be next. Cruel doctors and crueler lobotomies help get the viewer on Kristen’s side, but when it is revealed that she is suffering from a split-personality disorder, you simply feel had. Essentially none of the characters exist, they are all in Kristen’s mind, including the ghost.
By inserting this disorder as a quick-fix to the complex plot, the film misses an opportunity to really question the nature of “craziness” and of the medical institution. An open-ending would have better served the atmosphere, and the story as a whole.
5. The Adjustment Bureau
The film sets up a captivating unique storyline, wherein all of the events in the world are monitored and manipulated by higher beings. The adjustment bureau’s job is to keep people on the path they are meant to be on, for the greater good. For David (Matt Damon), this means they cannot let his chance encounter with a beautiful woman (Emily Blunt) on a train, set him off his course to becoming the president.
Pursued relentlessly, David tries everything in his power to keep the adjustment bureau from keeping them apart. As it turns out, love is the answer. At the end, a passionate kiss which the bureau try very hard to stop, ends up being the key to re-writing his path. The bureau is gone, and the two are free to live their lives, happily ever after. Presumably though, he will not be president.
This ending is simply too easy. Why does the adjustment bureau exist if they can be overwritten by one kiss? It seems a better approach would have been to try the kiss, only to find that their struggle to be together may not be over.
4. The Evil
This 1970s ghost-story is not the first thing that comes to mind for most when they think of great scary movies. The poorly crafted ending has a lot to do with that. If there is one thing classic horror cinema is known for, it’s the return of the threat. That is, no good horror movie can have a strictly happy ending (sinister, but true). This film goes against that theory, which is definitely not in its best interest.
After settling in for a weekend of hard labor, a group of college students, tasked with revamping an old mansion their professor has bought to use as a clinic, begin to suspect something is off. A series of disturbing events ensue, leading to the realization that the house is haunted. When things get tough, the last two standing are (somehow) transported to the afterlife to receive a strange speech from the devil (or God, it’s all a little unclear). For whatever reason, asking to be spared does the trick and they are whooshed back to Earth, where they get into their car and drive away.
Obviously, the ending could have been better. It feels entirely disconnected from the film, which needs some ambiguity at the end to remain scary.
3. Secret Window
Here’s another film guilty of a cop-out ending. The story follows a troubled author named Mort (Johnny Depp), who tries to find a relaxing escape in seclusion. Instead, he finds himself being taunted and threatened by a man who is accusing him of plagiarism.
Naturally, Mort believes the only way to placate the man is to prove he hasn’t stolen his story idea. But time is not something the man is willing to give him. As the plot progresses, the man becomes more and more violent.
But by the end, it turns out that the man is all in Mort’s head, who developed the dissociative personality to carry out the killings he had not had the courage to commit alone. Once this is revealed, Mort totally immerses himself into the new personality. The public seems to be tiring of the ‘it was me all along’ ending. Switching it up with some ambiguity helps.
2. The Mist
How long should one wait before deciding they are doomed and shooting their son in the head (for his own good, of course) is a good idea? Longer than this guy did. This monster movie seeks to unveil what ordinary people will do when stuck in extraordinary circumstances. In it, David (Thomas Jayne) and his son go out for what they think will be a non-eventful trip to the grocery store, but are soon trapped by a mysterious mist that hides monsters everywhere.
David becomes the leader of the group of survivors, but after escaping the store, he finds that the world outside is just as full of doom, and his wife has already been killed. Thinking there is nothing left to do (he runs out of gas, after all), David puts a bullet in his boy’s head as an act of mercy. Moments later, just before he has the chance to kill himself, rescue vehicles emerge.
This is a depressing ending, but it also feels silly because David’s decision to give up seems to come on too quickly. The world being saved only moments later is an ironic and devastating twist, but seems unnecessary. Some ambiguity surrounding the state of the world may have had more of an impact, and provoked fewer eye rolls.
1. Planet of the Apes
Few found this 2001 Tim Burton remake to be compelling at all, but for all the complaints, the ending is what has provoked the most attention. Leo (Mark Wahlberg) is an astronaut with very high morals; or at the very least, he really loves his monkey. After going into space to find Pericles after a mission goes wrong, he is launched through time and space, onto an undocumented planet in which apes rule the world, and humans are nothing but slaves and pets.
After an exhausting stay on the planet in which Leo encounters a lot of violence, he finally plans a rebellion and an escape. Although it means he has to leave behind the friends he has made (including an ape activist who fights for human rights), Leo is just ecstatic to make it out alive. However, upon his return to Earth, he finds that the world he knows has been drastically altered when he comes face-to-face with a statue of Lincoln as an ape, Thade’s to be specific.
Because Thade was imprisoned on his own planet when Leo left, it begs the question of time travel and multi-verses. It’s all a little confusing, so it seems strange to say MORE ambiguity is the answer. However, it seems a different approach to the open-ending — one that questions whether the return home has itself been successful — might be a little more effective in this case.