Do you remember the end of Inception? After the heist to end all heists, Cobb finally finds himself back with his children; however, in a story concerned with the nature of reality, neither the audience nor Cobb are sure if what he is seeing is real. So, our protagonist spins his totem to prove he is in the real world, but we are not shown the results of the test. The top just keeps spinning as Cobb joins his children. How about the ending to Planet of the Apes? The Usual Suspects? These are endings that sparked major controversy, and bloggers, writers, and trolls all across the world continue to dissect them to this day.
Movies are made to provoke a certain kind of reaction from audiences - getting them to freak out, or maybe even question the nature of their reality. Yet, good film or bad, the ending is what really makes or breaks it. Abrupt endings and closing twists are what people remember about the film. Filmmakers spend plenty of time testing and rewriting endings in the hopes that they will resonate in popular culture. That's why there seems to be so many alternate endings these days.
This list looks at some of the stories behind the most controversial movie endings that made everyone freak out.
- Photo: Pathé Distribution
Director Neil Marshall's 2005 horror film The Descent made audiences think twice about where they decide to hike (or who they decide to befriend, for that matter). The film follows a group of six women trying to escape a cave system infested with humanoid “crawlers” who hunt via sound.
The main protagonist of The Descent is Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), a woman who suffers from hallucinations and PTSD following the tragic passing of her husband and daughter. Technically, The Descent has a different ending for each of its theatrical releases: one for the US and the UK. Both endings play off of Sarah’s relationship with Juno, who had an affair with Sarah’s late husband.
Both versions of The Descent end with Sarah as the lone survivor. After escaping the cave, she drives away in her car and then hallucinates a vision of the now-deceased Juno. In the UK version, Sarah then awakens on the floor of the cavern and realizes she never actually escaped. She then hallucinates her daughter and a birthday cake as the crawlers narrow in. This is Neil Marshall’s preferred ending, but it was deemed too dark for American audiences. The American version ends with the vision of Juno in Sarah's car, but does not snap back to Sarah in the cave - though it still contains enough evidence to suggest Sarah never really made it out.
Actress Shauna Macdonald reinforces this sentiment by saying that she believes the ending is open to interpretation:
You have to make up your own minds. We’ve told the story, now you decide for yourself what happens. But the way it was in the script was like, there’s no way out. That’s how I interpreted it when I read it, but when you see it there’s more than way to interpret it.
- Actors: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring
- Released: 2005
- Directed by: Neil Marshall
- Photo: Warner Bros.
Christopher Nolan’s 2010 mind-bender, Inception, has left fans with more questions than any of his other movies. The most prominent of these inquiries revolves around the film’s contentious ending: does Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) escape limbo and reunite with his children in the real world? After performing inception on a businessman, it appears our protagonist gets his happily-ever-after; however, to confirm the nature of his reality, Cobb spins his totem and walks away before he or the audience sees it topple (or not topple).
Nolan has described the concept of reality in general as subjective, making Inception an exploration of how we define our realities. In other words, Cobb doesn’t wait to see if his spinning top drops because he doesn’t care to distinguish between a horrific reality and a wonderful dream. He has finally decided to let go of his uncertainity and choose. As Nolan explains, "I feel that, over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams, in a sense.... I want to make the case to you that our dreams, our virtual realities, these abstractions that we enjoy and surround ourselves with, they are subsets of reality."
Michael Caine, who plays Professor Stephen Miles in the film, does not subscribe to Nolan’s ambiguity. Instead, he contends that Cobb is back in the real world. As he explained at a screening of the film:
When I got the script of Inception, I was a bit puzzled by it. And 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.
Happily-ever-after it is.
- Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page
- Released: 2010
- Directed by: Christopher Nolan
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is a smaller yet surprisingly potent movie. If it wasn’t for its title (and its ending), you’d have no idea it was tied to the larger Cloverfield universe. On the surface, it appears to have nothing in common with Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield, a found-footage take on a large monster’s arrival in New York City; however, the latter is deceptively intimate, not unlike 10 Cloverfield Lane.
10 Cloverfield Lane sees Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) escape the deluded Howard’s (John Goodman) bunker in its climax. When she does this, the film shifts from a close-quarters thriller to full-on sci-fi action epic. Two alien aircraft appear, along with a tentacled beast, and the audience is given no time to comprehend what is happening. Fashioning herself a molotov cocktail, Michelle blows the monster to kingdom come. The film’s surprising final sequence not only brings her character arc full circle but also interweaves the film with Colverfield’s mysterious mythology.
Jordan Hoffman touched upon this in his review for The Guardian, noting the film's original title would've thrown audiences off the Cloverfield scent even more:
Uh, did I call this a sequel? A little poking around shows that 10 Cloverfield Lane, originally called The Cellar, was shot and edited before anyone had the idea to change the title and make it part of a known intellectual property... Midway through we realize that the screenplay is painting itself into a bit of a corner. It comes down to deciding whether Howard is telling the truth or not. I will give nothing away save this: the ending is unpredictable, but, in retrospect, feels obvious. Some will gripe, but that’s showbiz. I think the movie concludes brilliantly. I can’t wait for producer JJ Abrams to give us another not-next chapter in this story.
Director Dan Trachtenberg spoke on the story’s ending as a major draw:
There were definitely reshoots, a lot of inserts, character stuff, a lot of Michelle. But that ending was the ending I read. The beats were different, and of course I wanted to make them my own, so that evolved, but there was always a big, insane-o ending in that very first version of the script that I read. Which was different from the spec, admittedly. But that’s why I was so excited to do it.
- Actors: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher, Jr.
- Released: 2016
- Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
- Photo: MGM/Dimension Films
Frank Darabont's 2007 film, The Mist, is renowned as a faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novella. However, its ending divided some fans. After escaping the grocery store and evading the fog-concealed creatures (for now), David (Thomas Jane) and a few other survivors drive through a seemingly infested world. The group decides they’d rather take their lives than fight. Unfortunately for David, minutes after everyone else is deceased, the military arrives and takes back the world from the mist. No one had to perish.
King’s novella doesn’t end this way, concluding instead on a more hopeful note as the group drives into the unknown. Darabont felt the need for a more definitive ending, but still worried how King would react to it. It wasn’t until he received the latter’s approval that he proceeded with The Mist’s devastating conclusion. As he relates,
I thought, “OK, I’m going to let Steve decide. If Stephen King reads my script and says, ‘Dude, what are you doing, are you out of your mind? You can’t end my story this way,’ then I would actually not have made the movie.” But he read it and said, “Oh, I love this ending. I wish I’d thought of it.” He said that, once a generation, a movie should come along that just really pisses the audience off, and flips their expectations of a happy ending right on the head. He pointed to the original Night Of The Living Dead as one of those endings that just scarred you.
More specifically, this is what Stephen King had to say:
When Frank was interested in The Mist, one of the things that he insisted on was that it would have some kind of an ending, which the story doesn't have - it just sort of peters off into nothing, where these people are stuck in the mist, and they're out of gas, and the monsters are around, and you don't know what's going to happen next. When Frank said that he wanted to do the ending that he was going to do, I was totally down with that. I thought that was terrific. And it was so anti-Hollywood - anti-everything, really! It was nihilistic. I liked that. So I said you go ahead and do it.
- Actors: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Alexa Davalos, Toby Jones
- Released: 2007
- Directed by: Frank Darabont