This article contains spoilers for various sci-fi movies
“In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” If you’re a geek reading Den of Geek, you probably recognize those words as the final ones between Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt in Alan Moore and David Gibbons’s Watchmen. Manhattan’s statement comes as a warning to Veidt, who tried to save humanity from itself by manufacturing an alien invasion at the cost of nearly half of the world’s population. Viedt, of course, wants to know if it’s over, if he did truly save the world. But for Manhattan, who exists at all points on his timeline at once, the answer isn’t so simple. Nothing ends because nothing begins. It all simply is, at least from his perspective.
Get it? Yeah, me neither. But that’s part of the deal with sci-fi stories like Watchmen. Branching timelines, alternate realities, altered consciousness, and mind-bending concepts can break traditional story structure, especially when trying to cram that story into a traditional 90-120 minute movie. As a result, science fiction has a higher rate of confusing endings than any other genre.
Sometimes, these endings are confusing because the movie can’t wrap up its storylines in a satisfying way. Sometimes, they’re confusing because the director wants to keep the story intentionally vague, giving more room for contemplation. Whatever the reason, here are ten sci-fi movie endings that keep us up at night, wondering why nothing ever ends.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
These days, it’s hard to believe that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. After all, the movie begins with a bunch of apes beating each other up in front of a monolith and ends with an old man in a fancy bedroom dying and reincarnating in front of that same monolith. In between, we have similar bits of fan service like, uh, a pencil floating in anti-gravity and classical music. Yet, despite these oddities, 2001 not only thrilled millions upon release but also remains deeply baked in our collective consciousness, with references popping up in the most unlikely of places.
However, the movie’s popularity does not come from its clear narrative. The film ends with Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) sliding through a vortex of lights and stars until he arrives in a well-appointed bedroom, laying in bed and dying as an elderly man. The monolith appears again before him and he reaches for it. In the next shot, he’s a (very) wide-eyed infant sitting in a bubble, who goes through the monolith and floats above the earth, as the strains of Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” blast on the soundtrack. Over the decades, people have devised plenty of explanations for that ending, mostly around Dave becoming the next stage of human evolution. But 2001 remains a movie better experienced than explained.
By 1999, David Cronenberg had established himself as the master of thoughtful gross-out horror. Even his early Canadian productions like Shivers and The Brood mixed meditations on human nature with pulsating bodies, elements that would come to mark Hollywood works, such as The Fly and Videodrome. He eventually switched gears for a couple of decades, focusing on thrillers and psychological dramas such as Eastern Promises and Cosmopolis, not returning to body horror until 2022’s Crimes of the Future. But before saying goodbye to genre work for a bit, Cronenberg gave us one of his strangest movies, eXistenZ.
Like many internet and computer-based movies of the 90s, eXistenZ doesn’t really seem to understand how these things work, treating the virtual reality game created by designer Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as essentially a new universe that can be accessed through a jack in the player’s spine. But unlike lesser 90s tech-panic movies, eXistenZ doesn’t really care about how they work, choosing instead to explore the nature of reality and free will, as Allegra tries to escape anti-VR assassins with the help of her security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law). The movie ends with Allegra and Ted having seemingly survived the threat and escaped to reality. But in the final moments, the duo realizes that they cannot tell the difference between the game and the real world. Even more frightening is the question the movie leaves us with as the credits roll: what’s the difference?
Planet of the Apes (2001)
The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 is synonymous with twist endings, a reveal that’s so wedged in the popular imagination that I can talk about it even here without fear of getting yelled at for spoiling things. Heck, the cover to most home video versions of the movie feature the remains of the Statue of Liberty protruding from the sand. But while there’s no denying the power of that reveal, the twist has lingered over all versions of the story since then, sometimes for the worst.
Nowhere is that more clear than in Tim Burton’s infamous remake/reimagining Planet of the Apes from 2001. For the most part, the movie tells a straightforward Apes story, with astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) landing on a simian-controlled future Earth, led by the cruel General Thade (Tim Roth). The confusing part comes when the movie tries to recreate the original movie’s twist, with Davison returning to his present, only to be accosted by police apes (Ape Cops Are Bastards). Even more baffling is the final shot, in which we see Thade taking Honest Abe’s place on the Lincoln Monument, which means that the General somehow went further back in time to conquer the planet after meeting Leo. So complicated was this timeline that DVD releases included a flowchart explaining how it happened, which only further tanked the film’s reputation.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
These days, the letters “AI” bring to mind social media squabbles, in which tech bros announce that a computer has created a perfect piece of art and people with functional eyes contend that it decidedly has not. But for much of the 20th century, the concept of artificial intelligence captured the imagination of artists most concerned with exploring the definition of humanity. That included filmmaker Kubrick, who died before he could adapt the story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss, leaving his friend Steven Spielberg to take over. The result is a sometimes uneven story about a robotic boy called David (Haley Joel Osment) looking for acceptance.
As you might expect, viewers are quick to attribute the colder parts of Kubrick and the warmer parts to Spielberg. However, according to most accounts, Spielberg was responsible for the movie’s chilling ending, in which David gets trapped in an abandoned Coney Island attraction with a blue statue in front of him. Believing the statue to be the fairy from Pinocchio, David begs the statue to make him into a real boy, repeating his plea until his power runs out and he dies. Then, 2000 years later, alien-looking beings arrive, retrieve David, and genetically engineer a clone of his human mother Monica (Frances O’Connor), who reads a story to him. It’s such a shocking close to the movie that viewers continue to argue about whether or not it’s real or a hallucination and, more importantly, whether it is a happy or devastating ending.
In the final act of Stalker, the three main characters finally reach their goal: the mysterious Room at the center of the irradiated Zone, rumored to grant the deepest wish of anyone who answers. Like the hedonistic Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn), the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) hired the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) to lead through the Zone to the Room — he for answers to life’s deepest secrets, the Writer for inspiration. But as they near, the Professor reveals that he has a bomb and plans to destroy the Room, in hopes of keeping it out of an evil person’s hands.
Sounds pretty exciting, huh? Well, it is, but maybe not in the way that you’d expect. Instead of a giant battle, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (who also wrote the screenplay) ends in conversation. Unlike some of the other sci-fi movies on this list, Stalker does not try to hide the talking within cool action sequences. Instead, it leans hard into a philosophical debate about the nature of humanity and morality. As a result, the movie may come to a fairly simple narrative conclusion (they do not destroy the Room), but the point cannot be explained, especially with the final scene of the Stalker’s daughter (Natasha Abramova) apparently using telekinesis while reciting a poem.
Look, we all know that time travel movies are confusing. And most of us accept that. We don’t need to know how Ted managed to travel back to the moment his past self mentioned to drop a garbage can on his father’s head so he and Bill can escape. We just know that Wyld Stallyns rule. But that wasn’t good enough for Shane Carruth, who decided to make a realistic time travel movie with Primer. Instead of giving us futuristic phone boxes or Deloreans with flux capacitors, Primer features “the box,” a time-travel device accidentally created in a garage by engineers Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth). And instead of seducing their mothers or finishing their homework, the duo does what most of us would do with a time machine and uses it to play the stock market.
But in pursuit of realism, Primer somehow becomes far more confusing than nearly every other time-travel movie. And that’s because of the movie’s most realistic aspect, the jealousy that drives apart Abe and Aaron and interference from others who want money themselves. As Abe and Aaron use the machine to outwit one another and then try to reconcile with each other, they create more and more versions of themselves existing in overlapping timelines, so dense that not even a flowchart on Wikipedia can make sense of it. By the time the movie closes, we know that Abe from the future is working to protect Abe from the past (more accurately, the business gains his work affords). But the kaleidoscopic nature of the story means that there are probably even more Abes and Aarons, staring from just outside the frame.
At the end of Triangle, single mother Jess (Melissa George) makes her way back home after escaping an axe murderer on an abandoned yacht. But when she reaches her door, she finds that she’s been beaten there by single mother Jess (Melissa George), who just made her way back home after escaping an axe murderer on an abandoned yacht. The recently-arrived Jess quickly kills the already-arrived Jess and hides the body before the door opens to reveal single mother Jess (Melissa George) about to leave on a trip that will end with her escaping an axe murderer on an abandoned yacht.
Triangle is a time loop movie, part of the most confusing subset of the already confusing time travel genre. But like Groundhog Day and Palm Springs, the best entries in the genre, Triangle tells a story that’s so exciting that you don’t really waste time thinking about the mechanics. Even better, writer/director Christopher Smith (Severance [but not that one], Creep [but not that one]) uses the structure to explore themes of self-improvement and parenthood. In short, it’s a brilliant movie, as long as you don’t expect it to make sense.
Yes, of course, Christopher Nolan needs to be here. And, honestly, we could include the timey-wimey nonsense of Interstellar or Tenet, if the list was focused on the entire film and not just the endings. But out of all of Nolan’s high-concept sci-fi movies, none are more confounding than Inception, which ends on an intentionally ambiguous note. In the final shot, we see a spinning top, the token that Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) uses to distinguish between dreams and reality. And before we can see if the top stops spinning, indicating that he’s in the real world, the movie cuts to black, launching thousands of theories arguing that the top does or does not begin to wobble.
Up until that point, Inception is surprisingly clear. Nolan devotes more than half of the movie’s runtime to exposition, as members of Cobb’s team explain and re-explain the rules of the world to new recruit Ariadne (Elliot Page). While that sounds utterly boring, Nolan wisely spikes the film with thrilling action sequences, including a James Bond-inspired arctic chase and fight in a spinning hallway.
Under the Skin (2013)
In his adaptation of the Michel Faber novel of the same name, director Jonathan Glazer didn’t just include a confusing ending. The entire movie is confusing. Where the novel told a weird but (relatively) straightforward story about an alien corporation sending a scout to Earth to send the meat of human men back to the home planet as food, the film feels like behind-the-scenes footage. Most of the film features a woman (Scarlett Johansson), driving a van around Glasgow and picking up men (largely non-actors filmed by hidden cameras). Stylistically, the film changes abruptly when she takes a man back to her house, where she strips off her clothes and leads them into a room that changes into an inky black abyss that consumes them.
As you might expect, the woman is cold and emotionless when discharging her duties. However, a number of events spark curiosity, if not empathy, in humanity, including an encounter with a man with facial tumors (Adam Pearson). However, whatever kindness she felt is destroyed when she’s almost raped, and her skin is ripped off to reveal a black figure inside. The terrified rapist burns the woman alive, potentially saving the lives of others or potentially dooming it to worse. The last shots provide no moral or thematic clarity, closing with a shot of a man on a motorcycle — possibly the woman’s handler from the same planet? — staring out at the snow. With no further explanation, no relatable character to latch onto, we’re left thinking about the conflict between the human desire for empathy and the human capacity for cruelty.
At the climax of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, troubled scientist Lena (Natalie Portman) wrestles/dances with an amorphous creature who eventually takes her form. Just before finding the creature, Lena encountered her boss Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who launched into a rambling monologue about human folly and the abnegation of self before disintegrating into a multicolored cloud. But none of those are as weird as the movie’s final scene.
Garland’s adaptation of the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name follows Lena and three other women as they venture into “the Shimmer,” an area of Southern Florida transformed by a fallen meteor. Lena has gone to find out what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who suddenly fell comatose after being believed to have died during his mission to the Shimmer. The movie ends with Lena reuniting with Kane after destroying her aforementioned doppelganger and escaping the Shimmer. Lena asks Kane if he is really Kane, and Kane asks Lena if she is really Lena. The two both answer, “I don’t know,” and we see their eyes shimmer as they hug one another and the movie cuts to black. No explanation, no expounding on the themes. Just one more strange occurrence to end a movie filled with inexplicable phenomena.