13 Endings That Changed the World
Article By: Sean Abley
Many films take their audiences on alternate reality journeys, with our reality firmly established as the standard against which all others are measured. Once we’ve spent 90 minutes exploring these fantastic new worlds, we’re transported back to our familiar planet Earth before the credits roll. And then there are those few brave films that not only take us there, but leave us there, supplanting what we think is reality with a new world, different rules, and the implication we’ve been fooled all our lives up to this point. Here are thirteen examples of films (and a few TV shows) that do this extraordinarily well.
Needless to say, this list is FULL OF SPOILERS. As in, endings are revealed for every one of these films. Proceed at your own risk.
1. Dark City
Rufus Sewell stars as John Murdoch, a man with strong psychic capabilities and an unprecedented insight into The Strangers, a group of aliens manipulating a city while it sleeps. The Strangers using humans as test animals to further their own race’s lifespan is the main plot, but the reveal near the end of the movie is the big payoff—the dark city of the title is actually a habitat in space, created by the aliens as a laboratory for their experiments. And that’s it. No return to Earth, no escaping the untethered city. Humanity, or at least this portion of it, will continue to spend the rest of their lives in space.
2. The Thirteenth Floor
Craig Bierko and Gretchen Mol star in this tale of virtual reality folding in on itself. In the late 1990s, the inventor of a hyper real VR environment, complete with computer-generated humans who don’t realize they’re simulations, is murdered. Now the prime suspect, Bierko enters the faux 1937 world to search for clues. For the bulk of The Thirteenth Floor we believe that Bierko is visiting the VR world of 1937 from his real life in the 1990s. But near the end of the film we discover that 1990s Los Angeles is also a VR simulation, the real world is 2024, and Bierko is one of those digital humans who doesn’t realize he is comprised of computer code. Once his 1990s self is killed, Bierko’s 1990s consciousness is transferred up to real life 2024 Bierko. But as the film ends, the screen blips off, telling us that even 2024 may not be real…
3. In the Mouth of Madness
John Trent (Sam Neill) is tasked with locating Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a Stephen King-esque writer who has gone missing with his latest manuscript, In the Mouth of Madness. As Trent and Cane’s editor Linda (Julie Carmen—whatever happened to her?) search Hobb’s End, the New Hampshire town and setting for many of Cane’s books, reality comes unhinged. Cane is located and explains that his readers’ belief in his fictional creations has enabled hordes of ancient monsters to enter our reality and eventually destroy the earth. Trent emerges from the search believing it had all been a hallucination, but then the film adaptation of In the Mouth of Madness is released, and all hell breaks loose.
4. Halloween III: Season of the Witch
Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) and Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin—whatever happened to her?) investigate a murder connected to the Silver Shamrock factory in a coastal California town. At the factory they discover a plot to use Halloween masks to kill hundreds of thousands of children in an effort to bring forth the olde tyme dark arts as a way of life. The masks incorporate a microchip/Stonehenge chip combo that, when exposed to a certain frequency in a television commercial, causes the wearer’s head to explode in bugs and reptiles (which then kill everyone in proximity to the now dead kid). Unfortunately Challis can’t convince the TV networks to pull the commercial, thus bringing about the end of the world as we know it…
5. The Cabin in the Woods
Five college students in a deserted cabin are beset by all manner of killers and monsters. What they don’t realize is their experience has been designed by a group of off-site technicians, and their deaths are part of annual world-wide sacrifices required to keep The Ancient Ones asleep. (Awake Ancient Ones would destroy the earth, or at least make it very unpleasant.) But this season’s hapless archetypes aren’t so hapless, and two survive well past their expiration date. Even after making it into the control center (where all of the white collar middle management types are slaughtered by every horror trope imaginable), and given a “Kill the virgin, it’s for the good of mankind” pep talk by The Director (Sigourney Weaver), the survivors refuse to participate. And so… the Ancient Ones awake and humanity, presumably, is destroyed.
6. Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) & Vanilla Sky
In both the Spanish original and American remake, a man in a prison cell, his face obscured by a mask, recounts the events that lead him to being charged with murder. After being so disfigured in a car crash caused by an ex-girlfriend that plastic surgery couldn’t restore his face, he fell into a deep depression. At this point the hallucinations began, including his current girlfriend being replaced by his former flame, presumed dead after the crash. He murders her in a fit of rage and paranoia, and is carted off to jail. Through court-mandated sessions with a psychiatrist, the man discovers he is actually a client of Life Extension, a cryonics service. He has been living in a cryogenic state for decades, and most of the experiences in the film are actually a lucid dream gone wrong. At the end of the film he is given the choice to either be woken up, or remain in the dream world. He chooses real life, and leaps off a building. At the moment of impact, a voice urges him to “Open your eyes,” and the dream world disappears.
See Vanilla Sky clip here.
7. The Twilight Zone ("Midnight Sun")
Earth’s orbit has been altered, causing the planet to slowly move closer and closer to the sun. Norma, a painter, and Mrs. Bronson two of the few people left in New York City, unable to relocate further north where the climate is cooler. As the temperature rises the city falls into an unstoppable crime wave, and their apartments are invaded by thieves seeking water. Finally the thermometer pushes past to 120 °F and Norma passes out. She’s revived, and we discover that instead of moving closer to the sun, Earth has been pushed out of its orbit and is moving away from the sun. The planet is slowly freezing to death.
See clip here.
8. The Final Girls
Max’s (Taissa Farmiga) mother Amanda (Malin Akerman) was a scream queen years ago, starring in Camp Bloodbath in the 80s. As the two drive to an audition, their car is hit and Amanda dies. Three years later Max is convinced to attend a screening of Camp Bloodbath on the anniversary of her mother’s death. When a fire breaks out in the theater, Max and her friends are transported into the film. As they attempt to save both the characters and themselves from the themed serial killer at the camp, Max convinces camp counselor Nancy that she is indeed a fictional creation in a film, and her mother in real life. Sadly, Nancy must sacrifice herself for Max to live, but in the end Max and her friends are all alive and recovering at a hospital… until the sequel, which begins as The Final Girls ends.
9. The End of Evangelion
In the future a catastrophe called The Second Impact has sent the Earth on the path to oblivion. Giant monsters called “Angels” routinely attack the planet, and only teenagers operating biomechs called Evangelion can defeat them. (If this plot sounds familiar, you probably saw Pacific Rim, a live action ripoff of the Evangelion series that somehow escaped a lawsuit.) In the end, The Third Impact can’t be avoided, and Shinji, the main Eva pilot, decides the human race should die. Rei, an Eva pilot who has absorbed the souls of two Angels, grants this wish, dissolving all human beings in an instant and merging their souls into one consciousness, leaving Shinji alone. He then has a change of heart, resulting in the reformation of his crush, another Eva pilot named Asuka. If this all sounds convoluted, it is, but gloriously so. The End of Evangelion is a film that incorporated the plot of the original TV series, then adds a new, extended ending to satisfy the fans who were unhappy with the original conclusion (and there were many).
See clip here.
10. The Butterfly Effect
As a child Evan suffers blackouts connected to traumatic events in his life: participation in child pornography, violence against him by his family, his dog being tortured and killed, and the accidental killing of a woman and her child. As an adult Evan (Ashton Kutcher) discovers his ability to time travel, and soon learns his childhood blackouts were connected to his present day attempts to right the wrongs of his past. After each attempt at altering the past results in terrible future consequences, Evan finally chooses to end the cycle before it begins—by severing ties with his childhood friends soon after they first met. Although this writer is far from an Ashton Kutcher apologist, The Butterfly Effect is much better than you would expect from an actor who has well earned his detractors. Followed by two sequels in name and time travel only, The Butterfly Effect 2 and The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations.
11. Serial Experiments Lain
Lain is a middle school student living an introspective and quiet life, ignored by both her family and friends. After a fellow student commits suicide, the rest of the class receives an email assuring them she’s not dead, she’s merely discarded her physical body. From the moment Lain reads the email, she becomes obsessed with the “Wired,” an alternate reality of which she is eventually revealed to be the “God.” Fully describing Serial Experiments Lain (originally broadcast as a thirteen episode TV series in Japan) would be impossible without delving headfirst into theoretical physics and theological naval gazing, but trust us when we say the world is revealed to be quite different in the final moments of the story, and the journey there is complicated, beautiful and melancholy.
12. Synecdoche, New York
A play within a play within a film. Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York begins as an examination of a theater director’s life and artistic process, then progresses to world building, and finally the destruction of reality, consumed by a never-ending theatrical stage set. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a director given the opportunity of a lifetime—unlimited resources to created his dream theater project. He uses the money to create a gigantic set, in which he places actors and directs them to act out, and ultimately live, trivial storylines. As reality outside the giant warehouse of Cotard’s creation crumbles into dust, the faux world inside evolves and eventually enfolds reality, thus becoming reality. In the end, Cotard’s creation tells him to die, and as he does, reality ends.
Cronenberg’s last bio-horror film before turning to examining the ugly parts of humanity that don’t require a physical anomaly. The byzantine plot involves virtual reality games delivered to all five senses via a bio-port surgically implanted at the base of our spines. Despite the apparent popularity of the games in general, a renegade Realist faction of anti-gamers devise a plot to destroy eXistenZ, the new, hyper advanced platform designed by Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There are twists and turns, characters who aren’t who they appear to be, multiple levels of reality within reality, and just general Cronenbergian mindf--kery. In the end we’re lead to believe we’re out of the game… and then we’re lead to believe we aren’t…
Sean Abley is a screenwriter, playwright, novelist and journalist. His new novelization of Night of the Living Dead is available from Amazon.