Cliffhanger endings have been keeping movie audiences on the edge of their seats since virtually the dawn of cinema. Not to be confused with stand alone films containing ambiguous, “open” endings, this storytelling device sees films draw to a close without a true resolution, but rather with the promise of more events to come.
First popularized in serials of the 1920s and 1930s – famous for the “To be continued” text that rounded each instalment – cliffhangers have long proven divisive among cinemagoers. After all, by their nature, cliffhanger endings typically prevent a film from having a truly satisfying conclusion. How can they, when they’re designed to build anticipation for a follow-up movie containing the story’s actual finale? Even so, when done well, cliffhangers can be a thrilling way to wrap up a film, dramatically raising the stakes even as they surprise viewers with shocking revelations and happenings.
As cinema history is filled to the brim with famous – and infamous! – cliffhanger endings, we’ve pulled together this list of 10 Amazing Movie Cliffhangers (And 5 That Are Terrible) for your reading pleasure.
15 Worst- Mortal Kombat
Big screen adaptations of video games have a notoriously patchy track record, so much so that 1995’s decidedly average Mortal Kombat film actually stands out as one of the more solid efforts. The movie has a coherent-enough script, half-way decent fight scenes, and even manages to work in the tournament-style gameplay of the video game franchise.
Where it all comes unstuck is with its cliffhanger ending, which undercuts an otherwise serviceable climax. After Earth’s champion Liu Kang defeats evil soul-sucker Shang Tsung, he and fellow warriors Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage return to the earthly realm as heroes. The celebrations are quickly cut short, however, when the towering figure of Outworld Emperor Shao Khan appears in the sky, promising to devastate our world.
The trio – alongside mentor and God of Thunder, Raiden – are understandably less than thrilled by this, and they prepare for battle as the credits roll.
The problem here is that the sight of an over-sized Shao Kahn comes across as more than a little goofy, undoing whatever good will fans had towards the film up until that point.
14 Best - Lord of the Rings: Two Towers
Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy of films were unfairly criticised for their endings – first for not having any, and then for having too many! That said, it’s a harsh critic who fails to acknowledge the brilliance of the closing moments of The Two Towers. This finale is a suitably moody affair, as hobbits Frodo and Sam are led into a trap by treacherous guide Gollum!
Having finally given in to his darker impulses, the no-good Ring junkie enthusiastically escorts our unwitting heroes towards the lair of gigantic spider monster, Shelob. And as if that weren’t enough, the final lingering shot of Mount Doom and evil fortress Barad-dûr reminds us that even if Frodo and Sam survive Gollum’s trap, the horrors of Mordor still await!
13 Best - The Matrix Reloaded
Face it: the ending of The Matrix Reloaded sure is a doozy!
For starters, everything we thought we knew about the series’ mythology is thrown on its head. Then, digital messiah Neo is somehow able to tap into his superhuman powers in the real world, only to fall into a coma. Oh, and the machine army is still heading straight for the last remaining human city, even as Neo’s arch enemy Smith – in a human body – also lies unconscious inches away from our hero!
Arguably, viewers turned off by Reloaded’s verbose villains and sweaty rave scenes probably stopped caring by this point, but there’s no escaping just how strong of a tease this climax represents! Whether or not The Matrix Revolutions properly follows through on the full potential of this cliffhanger is up for debate. But even so, it’s pretty hard to watch these closing scenes without getting excited for what is yet to come!
12 Worst - Prometheus
At the end of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s controversial first prequel to the Alien franchise, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw is the sole human survivor of her interstellar expedition. Gathering up the remnants of the only other crewmember still alive – lifelike android David – she blasts off in an extraterrestrial space ship, headed for the homeworld of the mysterious “Engineers.”
And this…seems like a bad idea.
After all, the rest of Shaw’s team was wiped out as a direct result of the hostile actions of the Engineers and their biological weapons. So why would she go visit them? What makes her think answers – as opposed to a swift, violent death – await her? Yes, the finale does leave audiences pumped by the thought of exploring a brand new world, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore just how little sense this plot development makes!
11 Best - Star Wars: The Force Awakens
This entry represents the first of two Star Wars-related cliffhangers on this list, and it has the distinction of also taking place on an actual cliff. At the end of The Force Awakens, Rey manages to track down Luke Skywalker, who has been living in self-imposed exile after former pupil Kylo Ren broke bad and killed all his other students. As the young Jedi hopeful reaches out to the legendary Jedi Master with the lightsaber that once belonged to him, the movie ends and we’re left to ponder his response. Not only is this a stirringly mythic denouement – the visual of Luke’s cloaked figure is both thrilling and subtly foreboding – it also sends audience expectations into hyperspace!
What will Master Skywalker reply to his would-be protege? Why does he look so anguished as he gazes into the young woman’s face? And have the pair ever met before? Fortunately, according to The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, the next film picks up right where this one leaves off, meaning we won’t have to wait long for answers!
10 Best - Kill Bill: Volume 1
With everything that goes on during the third act of Kill Bill: Volume 1, it’s easy to forget that the first part of Quentin Tarantino’s crazy-wonderful revenge epic ends on a cliffhanger. But indeed it does, with an unseen Bill revealing to audiences that the Bride’s daughter – believed dead by our heroine – is actually still alive and well! Sure, it’s a relatively understated sting compared to other entries on this list, but, in terms of pure drama, it’s just as explosive.
Interestingly, when Volume 1 and Volume 2 were combined into one, four hour long movie known as The Whole Bloody Affair, the cliffhanger scene was actually removed. Presumably, Tarantino did this because there was no need to create anticipation at this juncture any longer, and in order to preserve the impact of this plot twist when it occurs later in the film.
9 Worst - Planet Of The Apes
To some extent, the cliffhanger at the end of Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes remake is unfairly maligned. Despite what some pundits have argued, the film’s closing moments do make sense – provided you’re prepared to fill in some of the blanks yourself.
That said, it’s fair to say that the ending – which sees astronaut Leo return to an Earth inexplicably ruled by apes – does have plot holes as presented. Indeed, thanks to the lack of any sequel to provide a proper explanation for exactly how this version of reality came to pass, the end result is a finale that’s more baffling than pulse-pounding.
And that may be the biggest crime here: the ending seems to have been devised less to set up an engrossing next chapter, and more for pure shock value, which is never a good idea!
8 Best - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Say what you will about the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels – that they they’re overlong and needlessly convoluted – but the climax of Dead Man’s Chest is undeniably impressive all the same. Essentially functioning as a triple threat, this cliffhanger ending features three core threads, which together set the stage for a truly massive follow-up.
The first is Jack Sparrow being swallowed alive by the Kraken, banishing him to Davy Jones Locker.
The second is ruthless baddie Lord Beckett gaining control over Jones and the supernatural crew of the Flying Dutchman.
And the third and final thread is the return of the first film’s deceased villain, Captain Barbossa, resurrected to spearhead Jack’s rescue mission!
C’mon, admit it: that’s a lot of awesome stuff the filmmakers managed to squeeze into one conclusion!
7 Best - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1
When the decision was made to split Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows into two parts was first announced, fans of J.K. Rowling’s novels began to speculate over where the break would occur. Although many well-reasoned suggestions were put forward, it’s virtually impossible to disagree with where director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves chose to wrap up Part 1.
As the movie winds down, Lord Voldemort breaks into the tomb of Professor Dumbledore and claims the all-powerful Elder Wand for his own. The sight of the Dark Lord with his new and deadly weapon is enough to send chills down your spine. It also leaves no doubt in your mind that Harry’s odds of surviving the final instalment just got a whole lot worse!
6 Worst - 28 Weeks Later
There’s nothing wrong per se with the cliffhanger in 28 Weeks Later – in actual fact, it’s really pretty great! It’s more that, to date, it remains irritatingly unresolved. The ending of the film, which shows Paris overrun with zombies, builds anticipation for the as-yet-unrealized 28 Months Later, which Danny Boyle has suggested may never see the light of day.
The reason for the delay in getting the sequel made? Your typical case of boring legal rights issues getting in the way, which are apparently no closer to being untangled now than they were back in 2007! Fingers crossed Boyle’s pessimism proves unfounded – rumblings by the director and screenwriter Alex Garland have indicated this might be the case – because otherwise, this ending will remain annoyingly unsatisfying!
5 Best - The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan is a big believer in the idea that every film he directs – even those that form part of a blockbuster franchise – should stand on its own and provide a sense of completeness. As such, the cliffhanger at the end of The Dark Knight may be the only entry on this list that teases the events of a possible sequel, whilst simultaneously delivering a genuinely conclusive finish.
True, The Dark Knight Rises was able to satisfyingly expand on this finale, which involves Batman taking the wrap for Harvey Dent’s crimes and going on the run from the police. But had that film not been made, the ending of costumed vigilante’s story as it stands here would remain no less powerful or fulfilling, which is a frankly astonishing achievement.
4 Best - Back to the Future Part II
The first Back To The Future finished up with a cliffhanger, but that was originally only intended as a gag! At the time, neither director Robert Zemeckis or writer Bob Gale had put any serious thought into addressing Doc Brown’s warning to Marty regarding his children’s future. Fast forward to Back To The Future Part II, and not only did Zemeckis and Gale resolve the previous cliffhanger, they also included another, fully developed stunner to keep audiences dangling!
As Part II draws to a close, Marty watches on helplessly as the DeLorean time machine is struck by lighting and disappears, seemingly spelling the end for Doc Brown. However, moments later, a Western Union courier arrives with a letter addressed for Marty and sent by the Doc – from 1885! Rather than killing the eccentric scientist, the blast of electricity instead sent him back to the Wild West, and it’s up to our hero to go back and rescue him – what could be more exciting than that?
3 Worst: Super Mario Bros.
If Mortal Kombat qualifies as a passable video game adaptation, then Super Mario Bros. counts as a dismal failure. Despite boasting several big names in the cast – including Bob Hoskins as Mario and Dennis Hopper as Koopa – the film’s bizarre re-working of the video game’s mythos failed to connect with fans and critics alike.
Although the film’s ultimate fate as a box office bomb seems kinda obvious in hindsight, the filmmakers themselves seemed considerably more optimistic about its prospects. In fact, they were so confident that Mario Bros. would earn a sequel, so much so that the film’s ending lays the groundwork for a (thankfully never made) sequel. When a gun-toting Princess Daisy shows up asking Mario and Luigi to come to her aid in the film’s final moments, audiences collectively groaned, “Please! No more!”
2 Best - The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Another entry that takes places in Middle-earth, this time drawn from The Hobbit trilogy instead. The climax of middle film The Desolation Of Smaug sees hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his dwarven comrades enter the Lonely Mountain, going toe-to-toe with the dragon of the title. While the vertically-challenged company puts in a decent showing against their scaly foe, all they ultimately succeed in doing is annoying the big beastie.
What’s worse, they also turn his attention to their human allies in Lake Town, and the overgrown lizard decides it’s time to sort out his defenceless neighbors once and for all. The haunting, oddly beautiful sight of Smaug descending on the settlement makes for a gut-wrenching ending, especially as it forces Bilbo to confront the consequences of the company’s actions.
1 Best - Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Did you really think we’d leave this one off the list? The ending of The Empire Strikes Back is without doubt one of the greatest and most iconic cliffhangers of all time! Not only does it feature one of the most famous (and best) plot twists of all time – the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s dad! – but then there’s Han Solo being put on ice, as well! This leaves us with one hero traumatized – not to mention missing a hand – and the other imprisoned, as well as the wider Rebel forces scattered to boot!
It leads to real downer of an ending, which contrasts drastically with the upbeat close of predecessor A New Hope, and showcases just how adult the Star Wars franchise can be. What’s more, it pays homage to the serials that inspired creator George Lucas, and elegantly sets the board for trilogy swansong Return Of The Jedi!
What are some amazing and not-so-amazing movie cliffhangers? Let us know in the comments!
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