Nothing is more disappointing when it comes to watching a film than when a good movie has a bad ending. And yet, this problem comes up on an annual basis, as countless films deliver an intriguing premise, compelling action, or powerful messages, only to fumble in the closing act. Sometimes, the film’s climax can be so poorly executed that it leaves audiences wondering whether the events that preceded it were even worth the trouble.
Strong films can still succeed despite a flawed climax, but they would be even more beloved if their conclusions were just as flawless. A bad ending can be what stands out for the viewer after watching, even if the movie was, overall, enjoyable. M. Night Shyamalan movies have been accused of this problem. A movie can hit all the right notes as it goes from one scene to the next, with great character development, and then ruin it all when things end up jumbled at the end. When these bad endings happen to good movies, bad word of mouth often kills their box office take.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
In hindsight, director Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence was always going to be divisive. The futuristic retelling of the Pinocchio story – injected with elements of science fiction and the more unseemly sides of humanity – was put on hold with Kubrick’s death in 1999, eventually falling into the hands of Steven Spielberg. For most of the film, the story of a robotic boy’s quest to be loved by his human family, cast out, pursued, tormented, and seeking a mystical Blue Fairy to turn him into a real boy fell in line with Kubrick’s style.
But just when the film reaches its somber conclusion, a plot twist comes screaming in unannounced, propelling David (Haley Joel Osment) millennia into the future. The film’s ending can’t decide whether it wants to be sentimental or somber; it’s a thought-provoking conclusion, but one far cleaner and straightforward than the preceding film (steeped in Kubrick imagery and meaning) seemed to promise. It seemed as if Spielberg wanted to add his own optimistic end to a movie that Kubrick wanted to end bleakly in this good movie, bad ending example.
The Ninth Gate (1999)
Director Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate was anticipated by many, both for its star and the director’s past work on Rosemary’s Baby. Following rare book dealer Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) as he works to verify a centuries-old book designed to conjure the powers of Satan, countless characters are murdered along the way before Corso must watch as his work is used to “enter the ninth gate” – with the attempt resulting in nothing but another death in this good movie with a bad ending.
Just as a missing page is revealed to be the culprit, said page literally flutters into the story, landing squarely in the main character’s lap. Finally revealing the true story that has been playing out, the film brings Corso to the threshold of immortality, book in hand – and the screen fades to white. Fans have crafted their own theories, but more than any other, the religious horror movie fails by simply lacking a real ending. So instead of the eery, moody thriller that preceded it, viewers are left scratching their heads as to the film’s real message.
When discusssing “good movies, bad endings,” it doesn’t usually take long for M. Night Shyamalan’s name to pop up. Although the stunning ending of The Sixth Sense cemented his name (and Unbreakable proved a twist was going to be something of a trademark), it wasn’t long before some flaws started to show. None of his films are more divisive than Signs, following a small family in rural Pennsylvania as they suspect and personally witness an alien invasion of Earth.
While a majority of the Shyamalan film has kept to the idea of a family witnessing an alien invasion, the twist ending plants an alien attacker in their living room, revealing that each traumatic event, failure, and eccentricity of the family was fated to save them. Divine intervention is fine, but the twist is delivered more bluntly than anything prior. Aliens choosing to invade a planet that is covered in water (their only weakness) is enough of a plot hole, but the fact that the drinks scattered throughout the house could have been anything shows just how unnecessarily clumsy the conclusion really was.
Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Devil’s Advocate managed to not only offer a demonic/supernatural drama that was actually grounded in real-world New York, but one bolstered by a strong cast, with Al Pacino as the Devil at the top of the list. It also packs a massive twist: after Pacino’s John Milton has welcomed young defense attorney Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) to the top of his field – costing him his wife and soul in the process – he reveals that he is Lucifer himself, and Kevin is his son. Asked to father the Antichrist with his half-sister, Kevin destroys his father’s plan in an act of free will: killing himself.
Instead of the movie ending with the Devil once again thwarted, the story rewinds, returning Lomax to the film’s first scenes. No explanation is offered for exactly how (did Satan return him to try again? Was it all in his head? Does the Devil have mastery over the universe?), but Kevin takes the chance to do the right thing. That would have made for a slightly sappy good movie, bad ending example, but the final shot of a laughing Pacino clearly still set on corrupting his son turns the movie into a confusing morality tale instead of the dark, depressing descent into immorality that it had been to that point.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
To call Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a mystery would be an understatement, but it’s not the enigmatic and unresolved nature of the story itself that turned out to be the problem. The film’s core mystery – the strange black monoliths seemingly calling to mankind – looks to be solved, but the final contact, instead, sends the audience hurtling through space. 2001 ends with the closing of a shot of the infamous Starchild: a colossal fetus floating in space next to Earth. Understandably, many critics were just as confused with this good movie, bad ending example, with the message hard to grasp beneath the shocking visuals.
But the message isn’t entirely ambiguous: the monolith gave apes the wisdom to use weapons and tools, and this second leap (more clearly understood in the 2001 novel) takes humans beyond their own life and death, emerging as a newborn into a brand new awareness of the larger universe. 2001 remains a classic for everything from its music to set design, but the willingness to leave even curious viewers confused meant that its message remains lost on many, if not most. After charting out the themes sci-fi would follow for decades, the film ends on more of a whimper than the intellectual bang it had earned.
The Wolverine (2013)
While it may not have seemed possible when the first X-Men movie was released, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine became one of the most successful, beloved, and recognizable superheroes in the modern age of comic book blockbusters. So fans were elated when director James Mangold promised that his crack at the mythology – The Wolverine – would be taking the character more seriously than his previous solo outing, setting almost the entire film in Japan. And for most of the film, the story and themes fit perfectly, until it became another for the good movies, bad endings list.
This came with the third act. Where Wolverine had been forced on a journey of introspection, rebirth, renewal, and a brush with mortality, the climax of the film saw him fighting an enormous Adamantium samurai and a venomous mutant femme fatale. While the preceding film worked on drama and urban martial arts action, the film’s final fight descended into the far-fetched comic book realm that Fox had promised to be stepping out of. Luckily, Days of Future Past proved that Logan doesn’t need to fight to be interesting, but The Wolverine remains a story that Jackman (unintentionally) described perfectly: two movies in one. And one of them was long overdue.
High Tension (2003)
Horror movie fans are a fast-learning bunch, with modern audiences attempting to identify a slasher movie’s killer from the very first scene. Is it the best friend? The lovable loser? The main character themselves? Or a band of cannibal hill people? Understandably, horror filmmakers have come to rely on twist endings as a final thrill, as fans have come to expect them. Such is the case with French indie slasher High Tension, depicting a weekend retreat gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Unfortunately, the film’s twist ending – the depraved killer is a split personality of the main character – spoils the experience and makes for a perfect good movies, bad endings example. The twist itself is nothing new for the genre, but the reason why it’s so shocking in High Tension‘s context is that it simplydoesn’t make sense. After a moment’s thought, entire sequences seem implausible the way they have been presented, if not completely impossible. It’s a shocking twist, but for a reason that left viewers annoyed, not enlightened.
I Am Legend (2007)
There’s no shortage of criticism when it comes to adaptations of Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend,” yet it keeps surprisingly close to the novel for much of the story, following Robert Neville (Will Smith) as he attempts to find a cure for a disease that has ravaged almost all of Earth’s population. But as he traps, tests, and kills specimens on a daily basis, events hint that his view of the afflicted as mindless animals is not necessarily correct. The mysterious monsters begin to set elaborate traps, with one enduring pain in order to show concern (or send a message) for a captured female.
When the film comes to a head, Neville (and the filmmakers) ignore the evidence altogether, handing a cure to other survivors, and blowing everyone up with a hand grenade. It was an odd ending given the build-up, so audiences weren’t surprised when I am Legend’s alternate ending came to light, in which Neville realizes he has killed countless thinking, feeling people, returns the test subject to her loved ones, and somberly takes his cure to the last surviving humans. The fact that online commenters seemed to almost universally prefer the alternate ending shows that the studio made the wrong call – and the film’s conclusion suffers because of it.
Few directors have managed to apply their talents across as broad a spectrum as Danny Boyle. With the likes of The Beach, Trainspotting, 127 Hours, and 28 Days Later spanning from horror to survivalist drama, his foray into science fiction was certain to be thought-provoking. And with Sunshine, he delivered – for the most part.
Following a small crew of astronauts charged with re-starting the sun to save Earth from a solar winter, Sunshine almost immediately began delving into the psychology of space travel, a truly multicultural future, and man’s role in the universe. But just as it seemed that the film had earned its place among the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and Solaris, the film takes a hard right turn, replacing isolation and introspection with a run-of-the-mill slasher movie. Sunshine is still hailed as a success for how much it got right, but its final act remains disappointingly predictable – not to mention out of place.
Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie will forever be considered among the best film version of the superhero by many. Promising to make audiences believe that a man can fly, the film did just that – which is why its ending was so puzzling. The film’s climax saw Lex Luthor’s devious plans come to fruition, with Superman forced to choose which American coast to save, resulting in the death of Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Enraged, Superman lets out a scream as he takes to the skies, and begins flying around the Earth – against its rotation – as fast as possible.
What appears at first to be a tantrum is soon revealed to be much more, as the catastrophe and destruction rewinds, revealing the Kryptonian to gain control over time itself. No matter how it’s explained, suddenly granting the hero such power is never explained, despite forever changing the mythology in the ultimate good movies, bad endings example. The film’s place in history allows this ending to be overlooked (like the memory-erasing kiss in its sequel) but shows the corner the filmmakers backed themselves into with a story meant to shock, but refusing to commit.
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