In today’s world of binge watching an entire TV series in one sitting, cliffhangers are becoming less and less frequent. Rather than hanging on tenterhooks for a week for the next episode of your favorite show to return and resolve the problem that was introduced in the last second, now we need only wait a few seconds for the next episode to load, just enough time to jam one more handful of Cheesy Poofs into your mouth.
But movies (and season finales) still have the ability to crush our souls by ending on a climactic note, forcing you to wait months, years or forever for a true conclusion. However frustrating and infuriating cliffhangers can be, the most effective of them really do their job, convincing fans to tune in next time in droves to see what will happen. Though it hurts to admit it, sometimes the very best cliffhangers have no resolution at all. Sometimes, our imaginations do better work than the filmmakers could ever do. Sometimes our anticipation and “what ifs” are far too huge to ever properly live up to, sometimes but not always.
Over the years, there have been some really amazing cliffhangers. Here are the best of the bunch.
13. Super Mario Bros.
When I was a kid and this movie was coming out, I felt invincible. I had hopes and dreams; life was grand. But when my favorite game hit the big screen and it only had character names in common with my beloved Super Mario, my world crumbled. Food didn’t taste as good as it once did, music no longer made me dance. It was tragic. But there was a saving grace. The end has Daisy show up at the Bros’ door yelling, “Luigi, Mario! You gotta come with me, I need your help. You’re never going to believe this.” This was it! Super Mario Bros. 2 would be the answer to my problems. It would make good on the promise to make a movie based on its namesake. So I waited. That message was delivered in 1993, 23 years ago. That’s almost 8400 days. Don’t let me down.
In the final scene of X2, Jean Grey sacrifices herself to allow for her X-Men companions to escape from Alkali Lake. After she apparently dies, however, and as a voiceover describes the dramatic leaps that mutation can take every once in a while, audiences caught a glimpse of the shadow of a large bird over the lake, hinting at Jean Grey’s return as Phoenix. Although many fans were displeased with the resolution of this story in X-Men: The Last Stand, the cliffhanger worked, leading the sequel to gross $459 million.
11. Deep Rising
After escaping a cruiseship of horrors, the three survivors land on an island and have a brief moment of relief and elation, but it is very brief. Just as Joey suggests that the island “looks like a nice enough place,” a loud monstrous scream is heard. The camera then pans out to show that something is carving through the forest at a great pace toward them. “Now what?”
The marketing campaign for the found footage film Cloverfield was easily one of the most influential ever. It had eager fans digging and theorizing for months ahead of the films release. While many were unhappy that the monster wasn’t a gigantic lion as some proposed, the movie worked quite well overall. But simply creating a buzz leading up to film wasn’t enough for its creators. The ending scene and the credits generated a lot of discussion as well, as net sleuths reversed the message that seemed to say “Help Us” over the rolling credits. When reversed, the original message changed into a much clearer cliffhanger, “It’s still alive.” Or “It’s still a lion,” I’m not sure.
9. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset
Both of these films ended on incredibly tense moments. In Before Sunrise, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are caught up in each other’s company over the course of a magical day. The film ends with an agonizing promise to meet six months later instead of exchanging contact information. Fans waited nine years to discover if they had met up in the sequel Before Sunset. Well, they didn’t, but Before Sunset shows the rekindling of their brief romantic encounter, picking up right where they left off, now as older and more experienced humans. But fans were not to leave this film full of answers either, as this too ends with a cliffhanger: will Jesse stay or will he go?
8. 28 Weeks Later
When the good guys escape across the English Channel to France, all is right with the world in the Zombie-thriller 28 Weeks Later. However, at the end of the film, we see footage of rage-infected zombies running toward the Eiffel Tower, as a French voice speaks over the footage, indicating that the virus has spread here too. While Danny Boyle has suggested that 28 Months Later still could happen, fans of the series are growing old, weak and tired.
7. Sylvester Stallone
By far the best individual cliffhanger I’ve seen. There’s a documentary about him called Cliffhanger that really captures his strength and flawless form. While Ace Ventura certainly gives him a run for his money, no one can really hang with Sly. Everyone else who tries to cliffhang with him end up falling like amateurs. He can hang on with only one hand. Heck, there are several times when he’s only hanging by his feet. He may look like he’s grimacing, but when he’s hanging upside down, he’s smiling. Truly the greatest.
6. Kill Bill: Vol. 1
After viewers had just watched 1 hour and 51 minutes of what The Bride (Uma Thurman) would do to get revenge on those who were responsible for attacking her and killing her unborn child, it was super exciting to learn in the final moments that her child never died, that it was alive and well. We knew that she would go to even greater lengths to rescue her baby. The bloody anticipation was palpable in theatres. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 needed to be awesome to answer the hype, and it was.
5. The Matrix Reloaded
Despite the lackluster answers that were finally given in The Matrix Revolutions, the cliffhanger at the end of The Matrix Reloaded was quite an exciting turn. With the sentinels hot on their tail in the real world, Neo displays that he has powers outside of the Matrix; he can feel and disable the machines with his mind. Combine this with the fact that Mr. Smith has worked his way into the real world as well through Bane, and you had a gaggle of fans predicting the ultimate meaning behind it all.
4. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
In a powerful and emotional ending, the fellowship disbands in multiple ways and all seems to be lost. Frodo and Sam separate from the group, Boromir falls to the Uruk-hai, and Merry and Pippin are kidnapped. While Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli watch Frodo and Sam crawl onto the shore on the other side, it seems that the three warriors will follow them unwanted, but Aragorn makes the decision to hunt down and save the two kidnapped Hobbits instead, leading into The Two Towers. I remember fans in theaters (who hadn’t read the books) were dumbfounded, thinking that surely that can’t be the ending. A guy behind me asked his friend, “is that it?” As an eager, die-hard fan, I leaned over and said, “yes. It is.” He quickly responded, “I wasn’t asking you.”
“Until we meet again my little friends,” I whispered to the screen.
3. The Empire Strikes Back
Even though the actual ending, the last few minutes, is a drawn out awkwardly silent view of Lando majestically flying off into space with Chewie, the complete ending is really crazy in retrospect. Luke has just learned that Darth Vader is his father, and he’s super ugly to boot, which certainly causes Luke some concerns for his own future. He also has had his hand cut off, C-3PO’s silver leg clashes with his gold ensemble, Han is frozen in carbonite and gone; overall, things look pretty bleak. But Leia’s looking good, got her hair did, and Luke shows that he can still play the air flute with his new hand, so it’s not all bad.
2. Back to the Future II
While the first Back to the Future is one of my all-time favorite movies, and the ending quote of “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” is just beautiful, it doesn’t quite have a cliffhanger, more of a teaser really. However, the ending of Back to the Future II ends with a really amazing twist leading to the third film of this honestly amazing trilogy. Just as the conflict with Biff is resolved, and Marty and Doc are ready to return home, lightning strikes the Delorean and it vanishes. Immediately after, a courier delivers a letter from a century ago telling how Doc was sent to the year 1855.
1. The Italian Job
Whenever you can make a cliffhanger both metaphorical and literal, you’re going to be just fine in my books. The famous ending of the heist classic The Italian Job will always be remembered as one of, if not the, best endings of all time. Riding off into the sunset in a coach loaded with stolen gold, the driver of the coach loses control on a winding mountain road, nearly skidding off a cliff, coming to a stop just teetering on the edge. Croker (Michael Caine) tries to crawl to far end of the coach to the gold, but the coach teeters further. With no solution in sight for how to get to the gold, Crocker turns to the rest of the gang at the far end of the bus (and the camera as well) and says, “hang on a minute lads. I’ve got a great idea.”