Truly great films will always lead to conversations once the credits roll, and often the film’s ending will stick in the back of your mind for days after watching. Over the years there have been dozens of films which have sparked fascinating debate surrounding the climax, and often these movies were designed to stimulate conversation. Ambiguity is a great tool for filmmakers to use, as this is how films remain important many years later. Here are 10 films where the ending is still hotly debated amongst fans today, making them timeless and intriguing classics. Spoilers ahead…
10. The Graduate
Generally, most comedies are the not the type of film that will cause debate. Mike Nichols’ The Graduate has had audiences discussing for decades, all down to the unexpected and not so clear ending. The film, which is based on the 1963 novel, follows a recent college graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who is seduced by an older woman, but instead falls in love with her daughter, Elaine. The famous, and heavily parodied, ending sees Benjamin crash Elaine’s wedding by banging on the glass at the back of the church, and the pair then escape to the street and flag down a passing bus. Strangely, the final shot sees Benjamin’s smile fade to a neutral expression, and Elaine then has a similar expression as they head towards a future of uncertainty. This unexpected turn has cemented the film as one of the greats in the genre.
9. The Shining
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaption of the Stephen King masterpiece The Shining is considered to be a horror classic. Not only is it a hugely influential film and story, but it is a film which is still frequently talked about today. Much of this discussion is surrounding the perplexing closing shot, which only adds to the film’s horror. After attempting to kill his wife and child, we see Jack Torrence freeze to death in the maze at the Overlook Hotel. But we then see a photograph in the hotel hallway that dates all the way back to July 4, 1921 (60 years before the film is set). In the photo, we see Jack smiling with a large group of people. This suggests that he is a ghost and trapped at the hotel (an entity) forever, but the ambiguity and unpredictable closing shot still has horror buffs debating 35 years later.
8. Total Recall
Most Arnie films aren’t the type to leave you debating for days after, but this is not the case for the 1990 science-fiction action classic Total Recall. The 1990 film, directed by Paul Verhoeven, plays with the audience’s perception of reality through though the protagonist having troubling dreams about Mars and a woman there. He decides to go to a futuristic facility, Rekall, that implants vacation memories, and he opts for a memory trip to Mars as a secret agent. This tangles his mind, and appears to expose his true identity as a secret agent. Whether he is dreaming or not is unclear, and reaches a much debated climax where he saves the day with blue skies on Mars (as a Rekall worker said earlier). Perception of reality has proved to be very popular in modern cinema, and this is certainly influenced by Total Recall.
7. Shutter Island
Based on the novel of the same name, Martin Scorsese’s 2010 thriller Shutter Island is a gripping film with an equally intriguing conclusion. Leonardo DiCaprio plays U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, who is investigating a psychiatric facility on Shutter Island. Things are not quite what they seem, however, and it is then revealed that he is a patient who murdered his wife. Once he claims he understands, they wait to see whether he regresses or not, and if he does then he will face a lobotomy. The next day, he appears to have regressed after saying that he and his partner need to get off the island, but he then delivers the chilling line “Which would be worse—to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?” This leaves the audience and his “partner” questioning his true state of mind as he is ominously taken away.
6. Donnie Darko
The complexity of Richard Kelly’s 2001 science fiction drama Donnie Darko make it a much discussed film, and it has developed a cult following since its release. The film follows the titular character, who is told by a figure in a monstrous bunny outfit that the world will end in 28 days, and when he returns home he finds that a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom but nobody knows where it came from. The highly discussed ending has sparked plenty of debate, and particularly the closing scene where two characters (that have never met) wave as if they recognize each other, but they are not sure from where. The most popular explanation involves a tangent universe, which was created by the engine falling through a corruption in time. It is a fascinating and complex watch, and likely to generate some heated conversations once the credits roll.
5. The Thing
Much like The Shining, John Carpenter’s The Thing is considered to be one of the all-time great horror films, and it also contains an uncertain and debated ending. The Thing is a parasitic extraterrestrial life forms that assimilates other organisms and, in turn, imitates them. It infiltrates an Antarctic research station and takes the appearance of the researchers, resulting in death and paranoia within the group. Once the Arctic base has been destroyed, the film concludes with the two surviving characters seated opposite each other and sharing a bottle of whiskey, unsure whether or not the other one will prove to be the shape-shifting alien. What is so fantastic about the film is that there is no definitive answer, and the fear of the unknown can be much more powerful. It is consequently deeply affecting on the audience, and one of the most powerful and discussed horror movies of all time.
4. Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut
Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece Blade Runner remains hotly debated today, with different interpretations and fan theories keeping it current. The film is set in 2019 where replicants (androids that are indistinguishable from humans) are banned from Earth, and Blade Runners are used to hunt and kill replicants who defy the ban. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) plays a Blade Runner on his last assignment, but throughout the film there are clues that suggest that he is in fact a replicant himself (as well as clues against this theory). The 1992 Director’s Cut added a surreal dream sequence about a unicorn, and this seems to suggest that Deckard is in fact a replicant. The famous ending sees Deckard find an origami unicorn that is left by Gaff (a colleague), which could show that Gaff knows his dreams and he is therefore is a machine.
There has been no film that has sparked more debate in recent times than Christopher Nolan’s fascinating and gripping 2010 thriller, Inception. Nolan certainly knows how to engage his audience and create films which get everyone talking, and Inception is the greatest example of this. The famous ending sees Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrive home to his children, but he spins the small top (a totem which keeps on spinning if in a dream state) and then walks away to join his children. We then see the small top continue spinning, before wobbling slightly as the screen cuts to black. This leaves the audience on the edge of their seat, unsure whether or not Cobb is dreaming. Nolan has stated that it is deliberately ambiguous, and the real point of the scene is that Cobb has left it behind and is only focused on being with his family.
Considered one of the greatest films of all time, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a fascinating period drama film that has had an enormous impact on modern day cinema. The Academy Award-winning film, made in 1950, shows varying witness accounts of a single crime, making it unclear which, if any, of the accounts are true. The fascinating film and plot device has become so influential that the term “Rashomon effect” was coined, and this refers to situations where multiple eye-witness testimonies of an event contain conflicting information. This is a plot device which is now commonly used in both television and film, which also helped mark the entrance of Japanese film onto the world stage. Once the film concludes, the truth is never revealed and each viewer is likely to have a different take on the real account, which of course generates some interesting discussions.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Another Stanley Kubrick entry, his 1968 epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most intriguing and puzzling films of all time. The film explores a wide range of topics and is stuffed with metaphors and ambiguity, and it is consequently considered one of the finest films in history. It is mind-boggling from start to finish, but particularly the famous climax, where we see astronaut Bowman travel through a vortex of lights, before seeing an older version of himself. A black monolith (machine built by aliens) then appears, and as he reaches for it, he is transformed into a fetus enclosed in an orb of light. The new being then floats besides the Earth, gazing at it in a now-iconic image. The novelization provides greater insight, but there is still no film that causes debate and wild theories more than 2001: A Space Odyssey.