Unless you’re a glutton for punishment who spends your days watching joyless films like Martyrs or Dancer in the Dark, you like your movies to have happy endings. A lot of successful films end on a positive note to send the audience out of the theater smiling; however, just because your favorite movies have happy endings doesn’t mean they lack unsettling consequences.
The unspoken consequences of seemingly happy movies are obvious once you think about them. Most Steven Spielberg plots would thrust their main characters into some much-needed therapy, and even action films that close with the main character overcoming adversity don’t deal with the collateral damage and reams of paper work to be dealt with by some hapless, beaurocratic pencil-pusher. Worst of all, romantic comedies surely lead to acrimonious breakups by the very couple that charmed you.
Life is quicksand, dragging us all down to a pit of despair, and even movies with happy endings can’t do anything about it.
Few children's movies are more traumatizing than E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Not only does Elliot discover that alien lifeforms exist, thus aligning him with every conspiracy theorist in a tinfoil hat, but his best friend in the world flies away in a spaceship, apparently never to return. The lingering question of how Elliot can be expected to adjust to real life with his newfound knowledge of the universe - not to mention his emotional scars - can haunt the mind indefinitely.
Even worse, Elliott saw the American government try to capture and dissect his Reese's Pieces-eating buddy - how is he ever going to have faith in the system? The end of this heartwarming movie is most likely the beginning of a truly fractured life.
Actors: Drew Barrymore, Erika Eleniak, Debra Winger, Robert MacNaughton, C. Thomas Howell, + more
Initial Release: 1982
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Even though Avatar's protagonist, Jake Sully, saves Pandora from deforestation, he dooms his own home planet. By helping the Na'vi defeat humanity, he keeps them from getting the Unobtanium, which is the one thing they need to keep the Earth spinning.
This serves as an incredibly disheartening end to Jake's story, especially when you realize that the Na'vi probably would have just given some Unobtanium to Earth if they asked for it nicely.
Actors: Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Sam Worthington, Giovanni Ribisi, + more
Initial Release: 2009
Directed by: James Cameron
Roy Neary goes through a lot in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After witnessing a UFO, he can't help himself from spreading the news of aliens' existence to everyone he knows, much to their confusion. When he finally races to Devils Tower in Wyoming to see an actual alien craft land and release a host of lost airmen, children, and animals, it's a huge success for the character.
The film closes with Neary boarding the craft and leaving Earth with the creatures - a seemingly pleasant ending, seeing as he obviously doesn't feel a sense of belonging with the rest of humanity. But what about his family? What about his children? What is his wife, Ronnie, supposed to tell them?
If ever there were a group of characters in a film that had to spend the rest of their lives in therapy, the Neary family is probably it.
Actors: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Carl Weathers, Bob Balaban, Lance Henriksen, + more
Initial Release: 1977
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
As far as happy endings go, The Dark Knight Rises is happy-ish at best. The film ends with Batman diverting an atomic device away from Gotham and detonating it, saving the city at the apparent expense of his own life. Despite the thematic value of his heroics, his efforts were most likely in vain - the blast was probably still close enough to Gotham to cause adverse effects.
Additionally, when Alfred sees Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle in France, his mind is likely manifesting the two out of thin air, unable to cope with his own grief. Since Bruce is one of the wealthiest people in the world, the chances of him appearing in public without a disguise are slim. Even slimmer are the chances that he survived the blast in the first place.
Actors: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, + more
Initial Release: 2012
Directed by: Christopher Nolan