Total Nerd

The Simple Explanations Behind The Most Ambiguous Movie Endings Of All Time 

Nathan Gibson
Updated July 12, 2020 947.7k views 12 items

One mark of a truly great film is when it doesn’t feel the need to answer every single question it poses. The audience is left to wonder about some of the possibilities and consequences of the plot that were not fully addressed. This idea of storytelling means there are sometimes movie endings everyone gets wrong when a conclusion is more open-ended than they realize. However, having ambiguous movie endings explained can enhance the experience and provide some closure to a plot in some cases.

Some of the best films of all time have had endings that are not clear cut, so everyone can come to their own decisions about what actually happened. Here are some of the best movie plot twists demystified.

The Shining is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Simple Explanations Behind The Most Ambiguous Movie Endings Of All Time
Photo:  The Shining/Warner Bros. /Amazon/Fair Use

Stanley Kubrick garnered a reputation for purposely including elements at the end of his movies that would confuse the audience. This is best demonstrated with The Shining, which shows a photo of the recently-passed Jack Torrance in a staff photograph at the hotel in the year 1921 - 60 years before the events of the movie.

The question of what exactly this means in the context of the rest of the movie has baffled people for decades. After all, Jack looks exactly the same age, and the time difference is too great to account for the similar appearance. The ending was meant to signify that Jack is the reincarnation of a past guest or staff member of the Overlook Hotel in 1921. 

Others argue the photo signifies everyone the hotel has "taken" over the years. When Jack dies, his soul is transported to the photo. The reincarnation theory came straight from Kubrick himself, but some people still hold onto this potential theory.

More The Shining 

A Timeline Of The Beef Between Stephen King And Stanley Kubrick Over 'The Shining' #3 of 239 The Best Psychological Thrillers of All Time #15 of 358 The Best Movies Based On Books

Arrival is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Simple Explanations Behind The Most Ambiguous Movie Endings Of All Time
Photo:  Arrival/Paramount Pictures/Amazon/Fair Use

Although Arrival was lauded by critics, it left some viewers confused over what the end of the story actually meant. The conclusion reveals that the flashbacks Louise has been seeing throughout the movie are actually not glimpses of the past, but rather visions of the future.

The character is seeing her unborn daughter, Hannah, will develop the terrible illness and eventually pass. Louise then chooses to embrace her future and go through the events that she has foreseen, even knowing the tragedy that will befall her—and Ian, Hannah's father.

More Arrival 

#237 of 358 The Best Movies Based On Books #49 of 181 The Best Alien Movies Ever Madelisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

Inception is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Simple Explanations Behind The Most Ambiguous Movie Endings Of All Time
Photo:  Inception/Warner Bros. /Amazon/Fair Use

Right at the end of Inception, Cobb finally returns to his children after spending what felt like lifetimes in the dream world. He spins his totem—the top he uses to determine whether or not he is in the dream world—on a table, but the camera fades to black before it is revealed whether it falls or continues to spin. This has led many fans to believe Cobb is still asleep, and he is stuck in the dream world instead of in reality with his children.

The ending has polarized fans. Some believe he is awake, while others think he was in too deep and is now stuck in a dream-state psychosis. The film's director, Christopher Nolan, didn't give a clear cut yes or no on the dream status of Cobb, but he did offer this at the 2015 Princeton commencement ceremony:

The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio's character Cobb—he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn't really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps all levels of reality are valid. The camera moves over the spinning top just before it appears to be wobbling; it was cut to black.

In August 2018, Michael Caine, who plays Cobb's father-in-law, offered his take on the infamously ambiguous ending during a screening of the film in London:

When I got the script of Inception, I was a bit puzzled by it. I said [to Nolan]: "I don’t understand where the dream is." I said: "When is it the dream and when is it reality?" He said: "Well, when you’re in the scene, it’s reality." So get that: if I’m in it, it’s reality. If I’m not in it, it’s a dream.

More Inception 

List of Movies Like Inception #9 of 239 The Best Psychological Thrillers of All Time #80 of 481 The Greatest Movies for Guys

Birdman is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Simple Explanations Behind The Most Ambiguous Movie Endings Of All Time
Photo:  Birdman/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Amazon/Fair Use

The very last scene of Birdman sees the main character, Riggan Thomson, climb out an open window. His daughter walks in moments later and eventually looks up to the sky smiling, suggesting that Riggan was able to fly up into the sky just like his alter ego.

However, this may not be what actually happens, as all the other magical elements from the movie have a serious element of doubt in them. The actions Riggan believes he is doing can always be explained without him having any magical abilities. Meanwhile, the daughter has the same mental issues as her father, meaning she could easily have imagined Riggan was flying away rather than plunging to his final fate.

More Birdman 

#112 of 172 The Best Superhero Movies Ever Made #1,349 of 1,646 The Most Rewatchable Movieslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever