‘Interstellar’, ‘The Thing’ And 13 Other Sci-Fi Movies With Crowd-Splitting Endings

Science fiction films are notoriously famous for their intricate plots and ambiguous endings. With classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner becoming well-known for their uncertain endings, it’s no surprise that the science fiction genre is home to all kinds of film’s with controversial final acts. In fact, some of the most beloved films by sci-fi fans tend to be films that provide no definitive conclusions and instead call for fans to interpret their own, personal answers.

Whether it’s a journey across the galaxy or a seemingly dangerous encounter with aliens, sci-fi fans are always looking for closure long after a film’s ending credits. However, these devoted fans also aren’t afraid of criticizing films with final acts that unfortunately take a turn for the worst. Over the years, plenty of polarizing sci-fi films have been released only to cause a frenzy among the fandom.

The questionable endings of these sci-fi films continue to divide opinionated fans as they argue over the effectiveness of these various grand finales. Here are 15 sci-fi movie endings that left fans hoping for much more.

1. Time Traveling In ‘Interstellar’

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Boy, oh boy, audiences were torn over the ending to Interstellar – a movie that feels like Christopher Nolan watched Contact and said, “Hold my beer.” Or as the English say, “Hold my pint, mate.” The film concerns Joseph Cooper, a former NASA engineer, who’s tasked with piloting a craft with 5,000 frozen human embryos to a habitable planet through a wormhole.

Before Cooper can do any of that, there’s a plotline about a “ghost” in his daughter’s room who arranges dust patterns around her room that relay coordinates through binary code and make changes to the second hand on her wristwatch as a form of Morse code. After Cooper’s mission goes upside down, he’s sent through a giant tesseract in space that shoots him through his own past. It’s there that he realizes he’s the ghost in his daughter’s room. He lays out the dust patterns and changes the second hand on her watch so that in the time that he’s gone, she can figure out how to send humanity through a black hole and save the human race.

The film ends with Cooper arriving on a station orbiting Saturn, where he finds his now-elderly daughter. Interstellar is a love it or hate it movie with many audience members pin-pointing the “ghost” narrativethe questionable science, and the overall serious tone of the film as their sticking points. There are probably some folks out there who love the ending of Interstellar regardless of all the wonky science and heartstring-pulling time travel shenanigans, but in this case, it’s the haters who are the most vocal.

2. Trying To Locate The Shapeshifter In ‘The Thing’

Photo: Universal Pictures

John Carpenter’s The Thing explores the tension of what would happen if a shapeshifting killer from another planet landed near a remote ice base and started wreaking havoc among the six or seven guys stationed there. Throughout the film, the titular Thing takes over the bodies of the men at the base until only two remain.

In the finale of the film, Kurt Russell sits amid the burning wreckage of the base with his co-worker Childs (played by Keith David). It’s unclear whether or not either of these guys is the alien, but it’s clear they both think that the other is the shapeshifter, and neither plans on taking their eyes off the other. It’s a bleak ending that people have been arguing about since the film was released.

There are numerous theories about what’s really going on at the end of The Thing; some of them are fascinating explorations of semiotics and filmmaking, while others are a little kookier. One of the loudest theories is that because Childs’s breath isn’t visible, that means he is the shapeshifter. However, it’s also been claimed that there’s a light in the eyes of everyone who’s been assimilated. Cinematographer Dean Cundy notes that the theory doesn’t hold water because the “light in the eye” trick was abandoned early in production, and director John Carpenter says that it doesn’t matter if either of the guys is the shapeshifter because they’re dead anyway.

3. To Be Or Not To Be A Replicant In ‘Blade Runner’

Photo: Warner Bros.

Blade Runner has always been a controversial film. There are at least eight edits of the film circulating, each removing or adding small pieces of plot that change the story significantly. The film follows Deckard, a former detective who tracks down rogue Replicants (bio-engineered humanoids) and “retires” them. When he goes after a group of three Replicants running loose in a futuristic Los Angeles, he falls in love with a Replicant named Rachel who believes she’s human. Through his interactions with the Replicants and the people around him, it becomes more and more likely that Deckard is a Replicant, as well. Maybe.

At the end of the film, Deckard returns to his apartment to grab Rachel, and he finds a piece of origami folded like a unicorn. This hints back at a dream he had earlier in the film and a conversation he had with his supervisor. There are some people in the Blade Runner community who believe that the origami is proof that Deckard is a Replicant and that his memories and dreams have been inserted into his head, specifically from his supervisor. Other fans believe the unicorn represents Deckard’s need to be free from the constraints of a capitalistic society that deems Replicant life to be lesser than human life.

The ending of the film is purposefully ambiguous, so we’ll never have an end to this conversation, which is actually pretty cool – unless you really need a hard answer on the whole Replicant thing.

4. Maybe It Was All A Dream In ‘Inception’

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Inception isn’t just Christopher Nolan’s most fun film, it also has his most contentious ending outside of the Dark Knight franchise. The film centers on Dom Cobb, a professional thief who breaks into the subconscious of his marks to extract information.

There are dreams within dreams in Inception with an overall level of reality; the only way to know if you’re not in a dream is to carry a small totem that behaves in a specific way that no one can know but you. At the end of the film, Cobb pulls off a heist and returns to America to see his children for the first time in years. It’s perfect – a little too perfect. He places his totem, a top, on a coffee table and gives it a spin, and then he walks away. The camera focuses on the top but cuts to black just as it gives a wobble.

Fans have been arguing about whether or not Cobb is in a dream since the film was released. Some point to the fact that the top wobbles as proof that Cobb is in reality, but that same wobble has been used to argue that Cobb is in a dream. Christopher Nolan has been mostly quiet on whether or not Cobb is in a dream at the end of the movie, but in 2015, he explained that it doesn’t really matter whether he’s in a dream or not:

The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb – he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid… I feel that, over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams, in a sense … I want to make the case to you that our dreams, our virtual realities, these abstractions that we enjoy and surround ourselves with, they are subsets of reality.

5. David’s Terrible Timing In ‘The Mist’

Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Even though The Mist is one of the more faithful Stephen King adaptations, it makes a major change to the narrative with an incredibly grim ending. The film follows David Drayton, a carpenter in Bridgton, Maine, who gets trapped in a supermarket with his son and a group of locals after a mist filled with human-eating creepy-crawlies engulfs the town.

The people inside the supermarket split into factions, with one leaning all the way into apocalypse speculation while Drayton and the rest of the survivors try to figure out how to survive the mist. As the film ends, David, his son, and a couple of survivors escape the supermarket in his car but soon decide to take their lives. David then shoots his son and the other survivors. Moments before David can take his own life, the mist dissipates and the military makes their way through the streets. The death of his son and his fellow survivors proves to be for nothing. 

That’s pretty dark, even for Stephen King, and it’s a surprise that this ending was in a major motion picture distributed to theaters (and that it made money). Some fans weren’t so hot on the whole “the protagonist kills his son and friends” thing, but in 2017, King said he thought the addition to his story was fantastic:

When Frank was interested in The Mist, one of the things that he insisted on was that it would have some kind of an ending, which the story doesn’t have – it just sort of peters off into nothing, where these people are stuck in the mist, and they’re out of gas, and the monsters are around, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. When Frank said that he wanted to do the ending that he was going to do, I was totally down with that. I thought that was terrific. And it was so anti-Hollywood – anti-everything, really! It was nihilistic. I liked that. So I said, “You go ahead and do it.”

6. A Confusing Trip Down Memory Lane In ‘Total Recall’

Photo: Tri-Star Pictures

Total Recall tells the all too familiar futuristic tale of a jacked construction worker – let’s call him Quaid – who visits a company that places false memories into the brains of their clients so they can have a fun mental vacation on Mars. Here’s the twist: he already has a false memory implanted covering the fact that he’s a corporate spy, and the people who put the memory in his head want to get rid of him.

Throughout the film, multiple people tell Quaid he’s not a spy and that the recall process has messed up his brain. Quaid assumes they’re lying to him, but after he saves the planet, beats the bad guy, and gets the girl, it’s not clear if the whole movie was an implanted memory or if it actually happened. Fans are fond of arguing about whether or not Quaid is actually in the middle of a plot to save Mars or if his brain just went wonky when he received the implant. The thing that makes the controversy over the ending so great is that it’s so fun to debate.

7. Still Processing The Ending Of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

What exactly happens at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? While aboard the Discovery One, a spacecraft heading towards Jupiter, David Bowman stops the insane computer HAL 9000 from killing him and his crew before making it to the gas giant. Upon arrival, Bowman takes an EVA pod to investigate a monolith floating in orbit before he’s carried through a wormhole to a giant bedroom, where he witnesses a version of himself that grows older and older before a fourth monolith appears and he turns into a space baby that orbits Earth.

That’s definitely what happens on-screen (in truncated form), but audiences have been debating the actual meaning of the events since the film’s release in 1968. In Roger Ebert’s trenchant critique of the film from the time of its release, he discusses the audience reactions as split between boredom, frustration, and love, but noted that most of the audience at the time just didn’t get it. He writes:

When Kubrick’s space infant looked at the audience the other night, half of the audience was already on its feet in a hurry to get out. A good third of the audience must not have seen the space infant at all… Two out of three people who see it will assure you it is too long, or too difficult, or (worst of all) merely science fiction. In fact, it is a beautiful parable about the nature of man. Perhaps it is the nature of man not to wish to know too much about his own nature.

While he was alive, Kubrick refrained from speaking about the meaning of 2001. He felt that it was a piece of art meant to be experienced, not deciphered, but while speaking with Playboy, he offered this answer for how audiences should interpret the events:

You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film – and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level – but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.

8. Excluding A Giant Squid From The End Of ‘Watchmen’

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Watchmen remains the gold standard for comic books. In just 12 issues, it tells the story of the rise and fall of a group of superheroes and questions whether or not we as a race (and readers) should just give up on spandex-wearing good guys altogether. Alan Moore’s prescient story was believed to be “unfilmable” until Zack Snyder actually delivered an adaptation in 2009.

Whether or not you like Snyder’s adaptation depends on whether or not you like Snyder’s filmmaking aesthetic (on-the-nose needle drops, high contrast visuals, indecipherable action sequences, etc.), but fans of Moore’s work were aghast that Snyder changed the finale of the story from “retired superhero Adrian Veidt dropping a giant squid thing on New York City to give the people of Earth something to fight against in the name of peace” to “retired superhero Adrian Veidt destroying the world’s nuclear reactors and blaming it on fellow superhero Doctor Manhattan to give the people of Earth something to fight against in the name of peace.”

In 2009, Watchmen fans really wanted to see that dang squid wipe out New York City, and when Snyder zigged instead of zagged, audiences felt betrayed and said that he missed the point of Moore’s original work. With more than a decade of space from the initial release of the film, it feels less like Snyder “didn’t get it” and instead that he wanted to involve key players in the ending for the sake of narrative clarity while hitting Moore’s bullet points about the warped morality of the people in power who we look up to. In 2014, Snyder opened up about the divisive ending of Watchmen, saying he felt that it was his job to keep the ending within the spirit of Moore’s work because he knew that another director (specifically Terry Gilliam) would have given the audience something they really hated. He told the Huffington Post:

If you read the Gilliam ending, it’s completely insane… Yeah, the fans would have stormed the castle on that one. So, honestly, I made Watchmen for myself. It’s probably my favorite movie that I’ve made. And I love the graphic novel, and I really love everything about the movie. I love the style. I just love the movie, and it was a labor of love. And I made it because I knew that the studio would have made the movie anyway, and they would have made it crazy. So, finally I made it to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world.

9. Wondering If Contact Was Ever Made In ‘Contact’

Photo: Warner Bros.

After Dr. Ellie Arroway discovers proof of life beyond the stars, she works tooth and nail to be the scientist to make first contact. Over the course of the film, Arroway runs into insane billionaires, red tape, and a handsome religious philosopher by the name of Palmer Joss (seriously!), who leads her to question the difference between science and faith.

Heavy on philosophical pontification, Contact still manages to thrill in the lead-up to Arroway’s trip through a series of wormholes, where she lands on a beach. There, her deceased father approaches her and explains he’s actually an extraterrestrial, and he’s appearing in this form so he doesn’t freak her out. The two discuss humanity’s next steps in traveling through space before Arroway returns through the wormhole and drops into a safety net. The technicians operating the space machine reveal that she never left the machine – in spite of the fact that her recording devices recorded a solid 18 hours of static. The audience is left to ask whether they would allow themselves to have faith that Arroway traveled to another dimension to speak with an extraterrestrial, or if they need cold, hard facts.

That’s where the battle lines on this ending are drawn. There are plenty of viewers who would have rather had some inkling of proof that Arroway had spoken to an alien – aside from 18 hours of static. But isn’t that the point of the movie? You have to decide whether you personally believe in Arroway’s journey, and that kind of ambiguity isn’t for everyone.

10. The Power Of The Sun In ‘Sunshine’

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Danny Boyle’s Sunshine centers on a group of astronauts who attempt to keep the Sun from dying and wiping out all life on Earth. Much like Contact, the film intermingles faith and science into a fascinating story, but the finale gets less philosophical and leans into a slasher motif no one saw coming.

On the trip to the Sun, Captain Pinbacker of the Icarus I pops up without his eyes and starts monologuing about how the Sun is really God and how he’s going to send everyone on Earth to Heaven via total extinction. He does all of this while straight-up icing every astronaut he can get his hands on. He’s eventually subdued, all of the astronauts die, and the Sun is reignited.

Nearly 20 years after its release, Sunshine is finally getting its due, although most segments of the audience don’t care for the slasher elements in the third act. It’s easy to understand why such a big tonal shift from pensive science fiction to crazy go-nuts horror would throw audiences for a loop, but Sunshine performs this tonal shift admirably. Much like 2001, Sunshine is a film that asks the audience to go along for the ride with no preconceived notions.

11. Messing With The Timelines In ‘Primer’

Photo: IFC Films

In 2004’s Primer, two engineers accidentally invent time travel by creating a causal loop that allows a person to travel six hours into the past by sitting in a box. The two friends carry out an experiment where they travel into the past to make stock trades that allow them to make some extra cash.

After the timeline gets all messed up, the two men start to tamper with each other’s timeline while multiple versions of themselves run rampant. The film ends with one future version of an engineer keeping tabs on the rest of them, while another is building a warehouse-sized time travel box so he can presumably travel back to before the experiment began so he can stop it. Possibly. It’s not actually clear what happens at the end of Primer – that’s left up to the audience to decide. 

Fans of the film have broken down the film and multiple timelines online, but they’re all subjectivePrimer‘s finale isn’t just controversial, it’s the entire film that fans are still arguing about.

12. Crossing Genre Lines In ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ 

Photo: Paramount Pictures

When Michelle wakes up in the fully locked-down basement of Howard Stambler, she’s got a messed-up leg and she’s handcuffed to the wall. For most of the movie, it’s not clear why she’s not allowed to leave the house – the audience only knows that there’s been some kind of attack.

Michelle finally escapes from Howard’s well-stocked basement home and blows it up, then she discovers that the sky is full of alien crafts. It’s not an ideal situation, but she steals Howard’s truck and heads off for Houston to help with the fight against the creatures after hearing a broadcast about the survivors’ efforts on the radio.

Most of the blowback surrounding 10 Cloverfield Lane has to do with the tonal shift from psychological horror to all-out science fiction in the last act. Some fans see this huge shift as too much to believe, or at the very least, they feel like the switch is too harsh and that it feels tacked on to the ending as a way to connect it to 2008’s Cloverfield. That’s a completely valid complaint – and one that would have likely been avoided with a different title. 

There’s also a school of thought that says the science fiction of 10 Cloverfield Lane is running through the film from the earliest moments of the first act. The entire film has the vibe of a Cold War-era sci-fi film that just happens to have an honest-to-goodness sci-action sequence to cap it all off. If you’re not in the mood for that kind of thing, then the climax probably won’t work for you.

13. One Fatal Mistake Made In ‘Signs’

Photo: Buena Vista Pictures

Everyone was ready for M. Night Shyamalan’s big alien movie in 2002, but when the “twist” came, it left many audience members frustrated. Signs focuses on Graham Hess, a former priest who gave up the cloth after the death of his wife. There’s Merrill, the former minor league baseball player, Hess’s asthmatic son, and Hess’s daughter, who can’t stop leaving glasses of water all over the place.

Tension hangs over most of the film as aliens arrive on the planet. They leave crop circles in the corn, they hover above major cities, and one even gets locked in the Hess’s basement. The aliens pull an Irish goodbye on Earth, leaving an extraterrestrial stranded at the Hess farm. The alien attacks the family, spraying the asthmatic son with toxic gas and generally freaking people out. That’s when Graham has the revelation of what his deceased wife’s final words meant. He tells his brother to “swing away,” and Merrill swings a bat at the alien, hitting a glass of water that scalds its skin. He then beats the alien to death. It’s brutal stuff.

It’s not the death by baseball bat that turned viewers off, but rather the fact that aliens showed up on a planet that’s mostly made of water when they’re allergic to the stuff. Some of the more negative reviews of the film point out that the twist is just plain dumb. But there’s another point of view that sees Shyamalan’s aliens as some of the most well-rounded extraterrestrials we’ve seen on film. The blame, one writer states, is on the audience bringing in their baggage about aliens to the movie, not Shyamalan. Even if you can shift your perspective, the whole water thing does feel kind of corny.

14. The Family Connection Revealed In ‘Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker’

Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Who knew that the Star Wars sequel trilogy would be so controversial? There’s no way that the sequel to the most beloved science fiction series of the 20th century could make everyone happy. The trilogy follows Rey, a Jakku scavenger who’s drawn into the middle of an intergalactic conflict between the First Order and the Resistance.

Over the course of the three films, she discovers her Force abilities, becomes a Jedi thanks to Luke Skywalker, and she even cuts through the moral mumbo jumbo of the light and dark sides of the Force to become the most well-rounded savior of the galaxy we’ve ever seen. And she’s just some nobody from Jakku… or is she? The Rise of Skywalker reveals that Rey is actually Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter.

Some fans were torn over this reveal, stating that to make Rey related to Palpatine makes the Force something received through nepotism. What was once something that everyone can do if they believe has become just another thing that’s meant for the “special” people. There are just as many fans who are thrilled that The Rise of Skywalker ties up the events of nine films with a tight, little bow rather than leaving the plot points floating in space. 

15. Zod’s Demise Was Too Much In ‘Man of Steel’ 

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a traditional Superman story with a super violent and out-of-character twist at the end. Much of the film plays out how audiences expect: the last son of Krypton is sent to Earth before the core of his planet can explode. Once on Earth, he’s raised by a pair of sweet mid-westerners who teach him to be a good person and a hero.

Following some globe-trotting, Clark Kent moves to Metropolis where he kicks around for a while and flirts with Lois Lane, but when General Zod and some evil Kryptonians escape from the Phantom Zone to eff stuff up on Earth, it’s up to Superman to put a stop to them. And put a stop to them he does, specifically by breaking Zod’s neck. It’s brutal, and not at all what audiences expect from Superman.

The argument against Superman offing Zod is that it’s not the kind of thing Superman would do; he’s a benevolent hero who doesn’t kill to win. That’s the kind of thing that Zod – a villain – does. The argument for Superman murking Zod comes from screenwriter David Goyer, who explains that Man of Steel is full of firsts for Superman and that the hero is still trying to figure out who he is – hence the murder. In 2020, Goyer said:

We were trying to – if you track the story all the way through in terms of this character emerging and his maturity and fully understanding the kind of power he has, and when they fight the kind of devastation that is caused by it. It’s not some frivolous fight, it’s almost like 9/11 when they fight. We were trying to come up with a stalemate where he couldn’t – there’d been a [comics] editorial decision in which Superman doesn’t kill, it was a rule, but that’s a rule that’s imposed on a fictional world and we just thought but sometimes, whether it’s a soldier or people in law enforcement, and again an immature Superman. This is the first time he’s ever flown in that story. He’d just flown for the first time days before that. He’s not aware of the extent of his powers at all. He’s finding somebody who’s said, “I won’t stop,” who’s said, “You can’t put me in a prison; I won’t ever stop.” We wanted to put him in a stalemate.