Confusing sci-fi movie endings explained

There's nothing more frustrating than an ambiguous ending after a great movie. That's especially true for sci-fi movies, most of which are brain-melters to begin with. Luckily, we've got the answers to some of the most confusing sci-fi movie endings ever, and although you may not like the explanation, at least you'll be able to sleep at night again. And hey: spoiler alert. Ready?

Looper (2012)

Rian Johnson's action-packed underground hit Looper was a breath of fresh air for the sci-fi genre, but the ending left a lot of people in a tizzy. We're not here to explain away the various plot holes–Rian Johnson's done a great job at doing that himself. And in a time travel movie, you can't expect all the logic to work seamlessly. But even with all the loosy goosy time paradoxes accounted for, Looper's ending was still damn well befuddling. During the climax at Sara's farm, Gordon-Levitt Joe decides to shoot himself rather than let his older self kill the kid Cid … which is exactly the act that causes Cid to become the future mob-leader the Rainmaker in the first place. Because in the original timeline, Old Joe tries this exact same stunt, but he doesn't kill Cid; he kills Sara and leaves Cid bitter and motherless, thus beginning Cid's descent into future villainy.

When young Joe boarded the shotgun train to the morgue, old Joe ceased to exist, ostensibly preventing Cid from going into a life of crime. It's not the cleanest ending (why did Sara still remember Old Joe when he technically never existed?), but it provided a fitting end to the story. If Joe lives, the future sucks and the events of the movie replay themselves infinitely. If Joe dies, the future is happy, or at least it doesn't suck as a result of Cid/Rainmaker.

Arrival (2016)

Arrival was one of the most unique sci-fi films of 2016–a year that happened to be awesomely filled with unique sci-fi films. And although the entire movie was filled with thought-provoking discussion on the nature of time and how language affects our perception of the world–heady stuff–the ending threw a Hail Mary straight at our frontal lobes.

The main takeaway is that all those flashbacks of her dying daughter that Louise (Amy Adams) has throughout the movie aren't flashbacks at all–they're flash-forwards to her future life. The gift that the aliens were trying to give to humanity was the ability to see time as they do–not as a straight line but as a space where all events are happening simultaneously. So under one theory, Louise's visions aren't even flash-forwards. They're flash-sideways. She isn't remembering her daughter's cancer or foreseeing it, she's living it at the same time she's living her time on the alien ship. In the final shot, what we're seeing is her acceptance of all the terrible things that will happen to her, because she knows that she'll get to keep the beautiful moments, too.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, A Scanner Darkly hits you with the weird combination of being unforgettable, yet entirely impossible to remember a year later. You recall scenes easily enough, but putting them into a coherent plot is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the box, with missing pieces, after a three-day bender. Director Richard Linklater's decision to make the movie using rotoscoping (drawing over the film, frame by frame, after it's been filmed) only draws you deeper into the psychosis and paranoia.

But the gist is, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is working undercover with a group of junkies to try to find the source of the illegal drug Substance D. He doesn't know it, but him being undercover is actually part of another plot to get him hooked on Substance D, reduced to a walking vegetable when the drug kills all his brain cells, and then sent to rehab at New Path–the company that makes the drug and makes money rehabbing the addicts. There, he'll hopefully have enough brain function left to report to his superiors and tell them how the drug is being made.

So when we see Arctor at the end, farming in a field of blue flowers, we know the agency's plan worked. Bob Arctor is all but brain dead, and New Path assigned him to farm the blue flowers it uses to make Substance D, knowing that he's too dumb now to realize what he's doing. It's … just the most depressing ending ever, but there is a glimmer of hope: Arctor tucks a single flower into his boot and says "A present for my friends at Thanksgiving." Basically, he'll take the flower to the agency, and they'll figure out how to blow the case wide open. Hooray for happy endings! Err … sort of. If you forget about the guy whose life they ruined to get there.

Under the Skin (2013)

Taken at face value, Under the Skin defies interpretation. With its slow, motionless landscape shots and increasingly surreal encounters in the black room, it seems to want nothing more than to sit its audience down and say, "Hey, look: weird stuff. Deal with it." Fortunately, we have more information to go on, in the form of the 2000 novel by Michael Faber upon which the film was based. While the story is heavily satirical of modern culture and therefore packed full of metaphors, it still boils down to a simple plot: Scarlett Johansson's character is an alien sent to Earth to harvest men so the aliens back on her homeworld can eat them. That black room is where her victims are killed and processed into alien treats. Eventually, she takes pity on these "animals"–humanity–and tries to empathize by eating food and having sex with that guy in the shack. Your basic human stuff.

All these newfound discoveries lead up to the climax, where she's chased through the woods by a rapey lumberjack and her skin disguise peels off, revealing her true form. Taken literally, it reveals that she was an alien under the skin the whole time. Taken as a metaphor, the act of peeling her skin off represents her decision to reveal herself as she truly is. Either way, she gets killed for being different, because humans are bastards.

12 Monkeys (1995)

Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys has it all: a post-apocalyptic future, time travel, Bruce Willis with hair–just the absolute works. More importantly, it's one of the few time travel films to start with a theory and stick with it until the end, and that's the cusp that makes the ending fit. The idea is that the past is unchangeable. Time-traveling back won't change a thing.

So it's the end of the movie. We're at the airport. Cole (Bruce Willis) and a now-blonde Kathryn are following Dr. Peters, who they know has the virus that's going to kill billions of people. Cole goes after Peters with a gun, hoping to prevent the apocalypse, only to get shot by security and die. As he's bleeding out, we get a close-up shot of a boy in the airport watching and realize that–oh yeah!–that's Cole as a boy, watching this unknown man in a Hawaiian shirt get killed. We saw this at the beginning of the movie.

Basically, the reason Cole was chosen to go back in time was because he was already at the airport where the virus outbreak started. Remember, the past can't be changed. But this time, Cole figured out who had the virus before he died and got the message to the future, so the people in the future can make an antidote based on the virus's original, unmutated form. They know they can't stop the apocalypse from happening in the past–they just want to keep themselves from dying in the future. That's echoed in the words of the woman (who you may remember from the future scenes) who sits down next to Dr. Peters on the plane and tells Peters she's "in insurance." She's been sent back to keep track of Peters and follow the virus's genesis as it spreads.

Coherence (2013)

Coherence is an interesting name for a movie that only gets less coherent as it plays out, and it's only when you get to the end that you realize that, by God, that may have been the most intricately perfect thing you've ever spent two hours watching. But since you've seen it (you've seen it, right? You're reading this because you've seen it, right?), let's talk about that phone call.

As the final moments play out, we watch Emily, or Em, going from house to house looking for … something. For her original group? No, she's looking for a reality where she's still happy. Where–as THiNC realized after talking to the director–she made the decision to go to Paris with Kevin at the beginning of the night. By the end of the movie, the million-plus possible realities of their group are a hopeless jumble, so Em decides to pick the best possible one for her, even if she has to kill the happy Em in that reality to make it happen. Which, of course, she tries to do.

When she wakes up the next morning, the happy Em she dumped in the bathtub is gone, and her new, happy Kevin gets a call from … happy Em. But the thing about that reality was that nobody left the house, so nobody even knew about the millions of doppelgangers galavanting around in the night. That makes Em trapped in the worst reality instead of the best, since to everyone in that reality, she broke into a house, tried to murder a girl, and then tried to pass herself off as a dead girl. What's she going to do? Explain how she got there?

Upstream Color (2013)

To understand the ending of Upstream Color, you really have to understand the whole movie first. The unique thing about Shane Carruth's odd love story (which is also one of the best movies on Netflix right now) is that nothing in the movie is a metaphor–everything that happens is literal. It's just…not entirely explained in the movie.

In a nutshell, the two main characters, Kris and Jeff, are infected with a parasite that intermittently lives in humans, orchids, and pigs. As Carruth himself explained it, "There is the worm-pig-orchid life cycle, and each of these have characters that are continuing to perform these little tricks in nature that keep the cycle going, but none of them know that the next one in the line exists."

So in the worm-pig-orchid life cycle, the timeline goes like this. The Thief infects people with the parasite to brainwash them and steal their money. Once he's got his money, the Thief transfers the parasite to pigs so his victims don't die. The pigs are watched over by the Sampler (the pig guy), who can see the lives of the Thief's victims through the pigs. Each pig is still connected to the person their parasite used to live in, and the pigs' lives affect their human counterparts' lives. That's why Kris and Jeff are so messed up throughout the movie–they're experiencing the pigs' mood swings and don't realize it. When the pigs die, the Sampler dumps them in the river, and the parasite moves into orchids, which the Thief then buys to make his brainwashing stealing drug, continuing the parasite's life cycle. All the people in the chain are sort of unwitting accomplices that help the parasite survive without knowing it.

At the end of the movie, Kris and Jeff start to sort of piece together what's happening. Kris kills the Sampler, thinking he's the guy who ruined her life. They find the Thief's files on his victims and mail them out to the right people, and then they all show up at the pig farm and find the pig that's connected to them. The end, pretty much.

Brazil (1985)

As far as dystopian realities go, Brazil easily presents one of the strangest–if not the strangest–futures ever committed to celluloid. It's more Orwellian than 1984, bleaker than freaking Bleak House, and yet still kind of beautiful, like a yard-art butterfly made of welded-together hacksaws.

What it comes down to, though, is the end, and the problem with Brazil is that depending on which version you've seen, the ending could be completely different. Director Terry Gilliam fought tooth and nail to keep his longer, darker vision intact In the shortened, audience-friendly version of Brazil, dubbed the "Love Conquers All" version. In it, Sam and Jill escape to a farmhouse where Sam safely has the dream about flying into the clouds as a winged knight. It's not a perfectly happy ending–you can still see the bridge where Sam sits, brain-dead, overlaid on the clouds–but it doesn't beat you over the head with it.

In Terry Gilliam's version, however, the end is a lot more bleak. The shot focuses on a defeated and not-quite-there-anymore Sam strapped to a chair, happily humming the song "Brazil." The gist of both is the same, though: the escape never happened. Sam lost, and he's retreated into his inner fantasies to escape the harsh reality of life. Sounds pretty depressing, but Terry Gilliam insists it's still a happy ending: "He escapes into madness, which I've always considered a reasonable approach to life in certain situations. To me that's an optimistic ending."

Total Recall (1990)

Was it all a dream, or are there really three-breasted women on Mars? Even two decades after Total Recall was released, it's a question that will still keep you up at night at least once a year, probably after your annual Easter-time Schwarzenegger marathon. And after all this time wondering, director Paul Verhoeven himself finally came clean about what really happened (or didn't happen) up there on Mars in an interview with Crave.

And guess what? You were right.

And you were also wrong. The thing is, both answers are true, according to Verhoeven. When he was making Total Recall, he intentionally set it up so that both answers are completely valid throughout the film. There's no hidden clue that points one way or the other. In Verhoeven's own words, "[The movie is] really saying there's this reality and there's that reality, and both exist at the same time." And if you feel cheated by that answer, look at it this way. Now you can watch it as two separate, completely plausible movies: one about a man who's caught in a fever dream in a malfunctioning computer program, and one about a man who has to rescue the people on Mars from a psychotic megalomaniac. And best of all, "Screw youuuuuuu!" happens in both of them.

Take that, 2012 remake.

Solaris (1972)

Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 mind-twister Solaris defined modern sci-fi just as much as the more popular 2001: A Space Odyssey, although perhaps more obliquely. It's a slow, philosophical movie filmed with what can only be described as visual poetry. And like 2001, nearly 50 years of passing time hasn't made Solaris any easier to understand.

Most of the movie takes place aboard a spaceship orbiting the planet Solaris, which has a strange, sentient ability to create clones of people based on the astronauts' memories and wishes. That much is explained. But the last five minutes or so take a complete left turn and show the main character, Kris Kelvin, back on Earth and walking toward his childhood home. He reunites with his father, and then the camera pans up to show the house surrounded by water.

So what's the deal? Is Kelvin back home? Or is he still in space, living an illusion generated by the planet? While you usually couldn't pin one meaning on a Tarkovsky film, the ending of Solaris is pretty clear-cut: Kelvin is still on Solaris. Even if you ignore the oddities present in the scene–the rain in the house, the odd exchange between father and son–one detail sticks out. In the front of the house, the fire that Kelvin started at the beginning of the movie is still smoldering away. He's chosen to live in a fantasy that exists before any of the events of the movie began, rather than face the real world.