Whether writing a movie, TV series, novel, or any other form of storytelling, one fact rises above all: endings are hard. The sentiment is proven on a yearly basis, as countless films deliver an intriguing premise, compelling action, or powerful messages, only to fumble with the closing act. Sometimes, the film’s final impact can be so poorly executed, it leaves audiences wondering whether the film that preceded it was even worth the trouble.
It’s rare that a film’s finale can be so poorly handled, it negates what the movie did right up to that point, but it’s just as unfortunate to realize that the characters, the conflict, and the plot in its entirety were all building to an ending that was doomed to fall short from the very start.
Our list of 10 Good Movies Ruined By Terrible Endings shows that strong films can still succeed despite a flawed climax, but in our opinion, they would be even more beloved if their conclusions were just as flawless. Needless to say, SPOILERS abound, so read at your own risk.
10. 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 make him ‘a real boy’ fall in line with Kubrick’s style. But just when the film reaches its somber conclusion, a plot twist comes screaming in unannounced, leaping David (Haley Joel Osment) millenia into the future. The film’s ending can’t decide whether it wants to be sentimental or somber; a thought-provoking conclusion, but one far cleaner and straightforward than the preceding film (steeped in Kubrick imagery and meaning) seemed to promise.
9. 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.
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 entry on our list, The Ninth Gate 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.
8. Signs (2002)
When discussing “bad endings,” it won’t 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 film has kept to the idea of a single 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.
7. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Lawyer jokes aside, The 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 – Al Pacino as the aforementioned Devil at the top of the list. It also packs one heck of a 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 Satan have mastery over the universe?), but Kevin takes the chance to do the right thing. That would have been a slightly sappy ending itself, 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.
6. 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, before closing on a shot of the infamous ‘Starchild’; a colossal fetus floating in space next to Earth.
Understandably, many critics were just as confused as audiences, 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 understand 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.