Few things are more important for a film than its ending. Just as diners won't enjoy a meal with a rotten aftertaste, most viewers can't abide an unsatisfactory ending, no matter how good what came before it was. Of course, not everyone can agree on which ending suits any particular story best, which is why many films have their conclusions tweaked or replaced completely throughout their production process. Sometimes the directors make the decision, and sometimes the studios make the call, but either way, the choice is a crucial one, since a new ending can imbue entirely new meaning into a film.
For some movies, the debate doesn’t end once the release date has passed, as their proposed alternate endings make their way into the public eye for all to view and debate which one works best for the film. These “what if” scenarios are fascinating to contemplate, as they offer a window into the creative process behind some of cinema’s most celebrated (or derided) films. Here are 15 of the most memorably alternate movie endings you’ve (probably) never seen.
15 28 Days Later
Considering the content of its story, 28 Days Later ends on just about the most hopeful note possible. Jim (Cillian Murphy) suffers a gunshot to the chest during their escape from the chaotic military compound, but survives thanks to Selena’s medical expertise. Before the credits roll, they try flagging down a passing plane with a huge banner that reads “hello,” implying they will be rescued and that human society is still functioning despite the fast-zombie outbreak.
Director Danny Boyle didn’t intend for such a happy ending originally, however. Jim was supposed to die on the operating table, leaving Selena and Hannah to walk through the exit to meet their fates. Test audiences mistook the ending and assumed it implied they were walking to their deaths, so it was changed.
14 Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story ends with the titular underdogs winning against all odds, just as you’d suspect. Vince Vaughn’s Peter returns after doubting his team to defeat the villainous White (Ben Stiller) and buy back his gym using the proceeds he made betting on himself to win. Compared to this ending, the film’s original conclusion feels a little like an elaborate practical joke—one that would make the film’s subtitle far more ironic.
Instead of going to a sudden-death overtime match, the dodgeball tournament and film was going to conclude with White defeating Peter. Our heroes mourn their loss as the commentators seem to rub it in, “They've come all this way for nothing. Absolutely nothing!" It almost certainly wouldn’t have gelled with audiences, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hilariously savage in its denial of viewer expectations.
13 I Am Legend
The post-apocalyptic Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend ends with Smith’s character Neville sacrificing himself to the Darkseekers to allow his friends the opportunity to reach a survivors’ colony. It’s a predictable climax that seemed to satisfy the test-audiences who rejected the movie’s original, darker conclusion.
Hewing closer to the source material by Richard Matheson, the original ending would have Neville learn that the monsters only wanted to help release one of their own he had captured. They take her away and leave Neville unscathed, a twist that forces Neville to see himself and the monsters in an entirely new light. This ending would have given the forgettable film a lot more weight by revealing Neville and the audience’s unfounded prejudices against the so-called monsters.
12 Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Terminator 2 ends perfectly, with judgement day averted for now but still potentially looming on the horizon, plus a killer line to close it: “If a machine can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” But director James Cameron’s original conclusions sacrificed ambiguity in favor of unnecessary voiceover narration.
After the Terminator’s self-sacrifice, the movie would have cut to an elderly Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton in bad old-age makeup) musing about how judgement day came and went without anything happening, except that “Michael Jackson turned 40.” After waxing philosophical about every day being a gift, she mentions her son John has become a senator – nevermind the fact that he wouldn’t have been born if the post-apocalyptic future never came to be. The ending we got was better, even if it did allow Hollywood the chance to keep tacking on sequels.
11 Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Director Edgar Wright had no source material to go off of in scripting the end of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, since the graphic novel series on which the film was based had yet to reach its conclusion. In the version that went to theaters, Scott’s story ends with him using his “extra life” to defeat the final evil ex, befriending the evil version of himself, and then cementing his relationship with Ramona, for whom he’s been fighting the whole film.
The original conclusion had Scott end up with his ex-girlfriend Knives, whom he broke up with because she was still in high school. Though less conventional, this version goes a long way in showing how Scott has grown, while rewarding Knives for her devotion to him. But it still pales in comparison to the other alternate ending that was never shot, in which a news report chronicles how a crazed young man killed his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriends while believing his life to be a video game. Dark.
10 The Descent
The Descent follows a group of women spelunking through an uncharted underground cave, who eventually become trapped and encounter a species of humanoid monsters stalking them. After a series of tense and bloody encounters, only the main character Sarah manages to crawl from the cave to safety, leaving open the possibility for the inevitable sequel, released four years later. But that happy ending occurs only in the American release.
In the UK and elsewhere, the movie continued beyond this point to reveal that this escape is merely a hallucination—Sarah is still trapped in the cave, losing herself to fantasy as the cannibalistic cave dwellers surround their prey. It’s dark and brilliant, and it sets itself apart from other horror movies in its daring—in other words, it’s everything the sanitized American ending isn’t.
9 Blade Runner
Here’s one where the alternate ending may have supplanted the original as the story’s default conclusion. In its theatrical release, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner ended with a helicopter shot of rolling green hills – actually leftover footage from The Shining – and Harrison Ford informing us everything turned out alright via stiff voiceover narration – an idea that was abandoned early in filming, then tacked-on in postproduction to lackluster effect. It hardly even feels like an ending.
The alternate one does things far more gracefully by disposing of the studio-mandated ending and cutting to credits just a little earlier, when Deckard (Ford) finds Rachel and departs with her towards an uncertain future. This conclusion does a lot with very little, as opposed to other ending options that were considered, like Deckard shooting Rachel after she requests it.
8 The Birds
The Birds is a riveting thriller that successfully turns the mundane into something terrifying, thanks mostly to the assured direction of Alfred Hitchcock. But as it stands, the film doesn’t really have an ending. Instead, we see our heroes escape the town as an ominously enormous flock of birds inexplicably just watch them go without raising a feather. It seems likely that this epidemic of violent birds will continue to spread, and we’ll never know why it started.
Hitchcock’s ambitious original ending didn’t explain the birds’ motives, but it did include a big set piece to help the film go out with a bang. The heroes would have seen more bird-caused carnage on their way out of town, then arrived at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge swarming with birds. Undoubtedly, it would have been a powerful, if expensive, image to end on.
7 Pretty in Pink
Watching Pretty in Pink through modern eyes, there’s an obvious problem with the ending—she ends up with the wrong guy! After spending the whole film lusting after the preppy hunk Blane (Andrew McCarthy) and ignoring the sincere romantic feelings coming from her best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer), the torn Andie ends up going with Blane as Duckie departs to dance with someone else, implying there’s a happy ending for him too.
But isn’t the dorky nice guy—Duckie in this case—supposed to get the girl? That was director Howard Deutch and writer John Hughes’s plan, but test audiences were unsatisfied, and their negative response led to reshoots that made the film feel like a major loss for dorky nice guys everywhere. It may have pleased audiences at the time, but it just feels wrong today.
Another James Cameron classic nearly ruined by a hokey alternate ending, Titanic didn’t always end with Rose tossing her beloved necklace into the sea and dying peacefully in her sleep to be reunited with Jack in the afterlife. Instead, Rose goes to the railing to throw the diamond necklace and attracts the attention of the ship’s crew, who plead with her to stop.
Rose just delivers a few lines of achingly bad dialogue about how wealth doesn’t matter, since “only life is precious, and making each day count.” One crew member shouts in her face “that really sucks lady!” but at least her words resonated with Bill Paxton, who begins laughing maniacally over the lost diamond and asks Rose if she’d like to dance. Somehow, it makes even less sense when you see it for yourself.
5 Fatal Attraction
Maybe the most influential film in the genre of “marital infidelity leads to crazed stalker” thrillers, Fatal Attraction ends with a horror movie-esque confrontation between the stalker Alex (played by Glenn Close), her former lover Dan (Michael Douglas), and his wife. It’s a rather simplistic way to end a complex story, painting Alex as the unequivocal villain and implying the cheating Dan can continue in his marriage without blame.
Director Adrian Lyne and Close herself favored the film’s original ending, wherein there is no climactic faceoff. Instead, Alex commits suicide and frames it so that Dan appears responsible. Beth finds a tape that may validate his claims of innocence, but their marriage is, at the very least, permanently shaken. It’s a lot more ambiguous, but would at least help to lessen the film’s misogynistic undertones.
Clerks is essentially a film about nothing, and it ends in an unspectacular way to complement its unspectacular subject matter. At the end of the workday, Randal exits the convenience store and throws the “OPEN” sign at Dante as he leaves and quips ,"You’re closed.” Simple, but fitting. First-time director Kevin Smith wasn’t satisfied, but he had no idea how to end his film otherwise.
Believing movies in which the protagonist dies to be automatically more memorable, Smith originally added a few extra moments to this final scene wherein a masked robber enters the shop and shoots Dante before emptying the cash register. After the credits have rolled, another customer comes in to steal some cigarettes. This ending is obviously much darker, but far less fitting for Clerks' subject matter.
3 Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Dr. Strangelove ends on the perfect pitch-black note to complete its farcical-yet-terrifyingly-plausible vision of how nuclear annihilation might result from simple human error: a chain of nuclear explosions go off as the wistful notes of "We'll Meet Again" play in the background. But the iconic ending was almost replaced with one far sillier—a pie fight at the Pentagon.
The released version of the film briefly shows a long table of refreshments in the War Room where the president and his staff conduct their meetings. Originally, the final scene was to show everyone present, including the president and Russian ambassador, hurling cream pies from this table at each other as the world nears destruction, a bizarre bit that would have made the film’s depiction of politics as a sort of ineffectual three-ring circus a little too on-the-nose. Director Stanley Kubrick correctly surmised this ending didn’t match the tone of the rest of the film.
2 First Blood
In adapting the story of John Rambo from David Morrell’s original novel, the scriptwriters for First Blood (star Sylvester Stallone among them) made the PTSD-suffering Vietnam veteran much more sympathetic, removing any instance in which Rambo is directly responsible for killing the members of law enforcement against whom he’s fighting. Logically enough, they also chose to omit the original ending, in which a cornered Rambo kills himself.
The revised ending still finds Rambo cornered with his friend Colonel Trautman, but rather than commit suicide, he gives a dramatic monologue about the damaging horrors of war before honorably accepting his fate and going to turn himself in. Audiences were spared the tragedy of seeing the heroic Rambo turn the gun on himself, but not the mediocrity of the film’s many sequels.
For a film so obviously indebted to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Brazil concludes on a suspiciously happy note, with office drone Sam being rescued from the authorities’ torture chamber and fleeing to the idyllic countryside with dream-girl Jill by his side. It all seems too good to be true for a reason.
Director Terry Gilliam’s original ending, the one that was screened internationally included in most DVD releases, goes on a little longer to reveal that Sam is still being tortured, and that he only hallucinated this happy ending. Gilliam fought hard against Universal, the film’s American distributor, to keep his original ending in place, but they released their shortened version anyway to comply with the delicate sensibilities of their test audiences. This "love conquers all" version is still the one usually shown in syndication.
What other alternate movie endings do you think most moviegoers haven't come across? Let us know in the comments.
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