It’s as true of movies as it is of air travel: if you mess up the landing, people aren’t going to care about how smooth the journey was.
The history of cinema is littered with films that spend an hour or two deftly courting their audiences, only to drop the baton at the final sprint.
Whether that’s through a shocking, misjudged twist, such as the soppy drama Pay It Forward or M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, or simply down to a film running out of steam, there have been many movies with endings that left a foul taste in viewers’ mouths.
Sometimes, this is out of the filmmakers’ hands. This was the case with Fight Club, which saw its original ending entirely removed by Chinese censors and replaced with a terrible alternative.
Other times, it’s solely the choice of the writers, with a finale simply misjudged in story or tone.
Here are 17 otherwise impressive films that were ruined by their endings…
10 Cloverfield Lane
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr are locked in an underground bunker for the majority of this left-field sequel to Cloverfield, with thrilling results. In the film’s final throes, Winstead’s character exits the bunker, and finds that her captor was telling the truth about an alien invasion above – a twist that completely and ruinously dissipates the hard-earned tension that came before.
Even leaving aside the Kevin Spacey of it all, there are serious problems with the ending of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, the film that heralded the Shaun of the Dead filmmaker’s big leap to Hollywood. While the early parts of the film are characterised by an enjoyable, rhythmic lightness of touch, the last act of Baby Driver shifts gears into gurning action melodrama, as Ansel Elgort’s headphone-addict getaway driver faces off with a demonic Jon Hamm. Compared to what came before, it’s a car crash – or engine failure at the very least.
Bad Times at the El Royale
Seldom have films taken as radical a turn for the worst as Bad Times at the El Royale, which starts out as a witty, unpredictable Tarantino riff. As it careens towards an endgame, Chris Hemsworth’s preening cult leader takes over, and Bad Times becomes a tedious and overblown mess. A royale disappointment.
Fight Club (Chinese cut)
The original ending to Fight Club is a striking one – Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter holding hands while watching buildings explode outside the window. The Chinese cut of the film, however, replaced this moment with a radically underwhelming postscript, reading: “The police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding.” The ending was more than a damp squib; Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk sarcastically shared the news, writing: “Have You Seen This S***? This is SUPER wonderful! Everyone gets a happy ending in China!”
In many regards, the 2020 Christmas romcom Happiest Season was a spiriting success – a queer love story that was largely charming, and suitably festive. Over the course of the film, however, Aubrey Plaza’s character demonstrates such potent chemistry with lead Kristen Stewart, that the latter’s ultimate decision to get back with the (unintentionally) toxic Mackenzie Davis feels like a thumbtack in our figgy pudding. Humbug.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
For all the fuss about the “nuclear fridge” scene, Steven Spielberg’s return to the adventure serial franchise is largely a well-made and entertaining piece of popcorn entertainment. That is until its climax, when Harrison Ford’s intrepid archeologist activates an alien spaceship. Indy’s pivot to science fiction isn’t really any more far-fetched than the pseudo-religious magic of the first three films, but Crystal Skull inflates the sequence into something not just daft, but deeply uncompelling.
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
All of Peter Jackson’s fantasy epics were indulgent when it came to storytelling: their hefty, three-hour runtimes are part of their intrinsic appeal. But it’s only at the end of the third film, Return of the King, that patience tips over into outright frustration. With the drama of the trilogy all resolved, we are treated to a seemingly interminable sequence in which Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) reunites with his old friends, one by one… it drags massively, and is a large part of why Return of the King is the weakest entry of the three.
The Magnificent Ambersons
The original cut of Orson Welles’ 1942 drama is often heralded as a masterpiece on par with Citizen Kane; it’s a shame nobody is able to watch it. The studio-mandated “happy ending” tacked onto this intelligent period drama is now the only version available. While the film is still well worth watching, it succeeds despite its ending, with the ghost of Welles’ original intentions haunting the film like a phantom.
Now You See Me
This 2013 thriller seemed to want to emulate Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige – a film about magicians that managed to pull off an almighty illusion of its own. Now You See Me, however, ended up botching its big reveal, as it ultimately turns out that the magic is real… and deeply unsatisfying. “The wizard did it” ends up being just about the biggest cop-out around, and the film fails to tie up many of its loose ends. A dismal sequel did nothing to rescue things.
Pay It Forward
Say what you will about the ending to Pay It Forward, but it’s certainly unexpected. The uplifting drama, which stars Haley Joel Osmant as a young child who tries to change the world for the better, turns out to be no so uplifting after all – as the wee’un is stabbed to death in a shock twist. It’s dark (much, much too dark) and left audiences feeling like they’d just been slapped in the face.
Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror contains several cinematic moments for the ages — including the iconic climax, in which it’s revealed that Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has been dressing as his mother to commit murder. Taking the shine off the film’s ending, though, is a clunky, tacked-on epilogue, which over-explains the psychology behind Norman in stiff and outdated terms. Lose the scene, and the film would only be better for it.
Few would argue that this Rober Pattinson drama was a great film for the first 100-odd minutes, but it was only in its final shot that Remember Me became a disaster. The last-minute twist — that Pattinson is standing in the World Trade Center, moments before the 9/11 terror attacks — is so catastrophically misjudged that it turned the film into a kind of poor-taste laughing stock.
There’s quite a lot to like about Sam Mendes’s maligned return to the James Bond franchise – beginning with the arresting set piece at a Mexican Day of the Dead festival. But once Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld comes into play, things start deteriorating – and the final set piece is somehow both overblown and witheringly anticlimactic.
M Night Shyamalan’s 2016 film starts out as an intriguing psychological horror. James McAvoy is given free reign to do a lot of capital-A Acting, playing the various personalities of Kevin Wendell Crumb, a kidnapper with dissociative identity disorder. All through the film, we are teased with the threat of one of Crumb’s personalities, known only as “The Beast”. The reveal? The beast isn’t just another personality, but in fact a giant supernatural being, into whom Crumb transforms. It’s then revealed that Split is in fact a stealth sequel to Shyamalan’s previous film Unbreakable. Unexpected? Sure. But it kills the tension – and takes the film down with it.
Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi was, for much of its runtime, a deft, intelligent drama set aboard a vehicle bound for the sun. It was a film built on character and psychological believability. In the last act, however, it takes a sharp pivot into slasher territory, which undermines much of what came beforehand. Reviewers singled out the ending for criticism, with The Austin Chronicle’s Marrit Ingman among those disparaging the “profoundly implausible plot turn that sends the movie skidding into bogeyman horror”, which “cheapens the sentiment, and the film doesn’t recover”.
Sorry, M Night, but you’ve got another film on this list. Hollywood’s “master of the twist” held true to form with this 2004 period drama, which, in its big turn, is revealed to not be a period drama at all. The late, great critic Roger Ebert tore the film apart in his review, writing: “To call the ending an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It’s a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It was all a dream. It’s so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don’t know the secret anymore”.
The World’s End
Until it’s climax, the third film in Edgar Wright’s so-called Cornetto Trilogy is up there with his best work: funny, propulsive and packed with clever Easter eggs. The final confrontation, in which Simon Pegg’s obnoxious Gary King faces off with alien body snatchers, kills the momentum entirely; it’s neither funny or satisfying enough to pay off everything that came before it.