Science fiction films have given audiences many thought-provoking stories with equally profound endings. These conclusions can spark the audience’s imagination of what could be with an uplifting resolution, or they can leave a crater in their hearts with a hopeless prediction of humanity’s future.
Whatever impact they left on the audience, these seven sci-fi movies, from a Stanley Kubrick classic from the 1960s to one of 2022’s best movies, nailed their final moments and cemented each film’s place in the pantheon of great genre works.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
In the finale to one of the best sci-fi space movies ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave Bowman finds himself hurtling through space and time when he reaches the monolith orbiting Jupiter. For 10 minutes, the film bombards the audience with dazzling and colorful imagery in a beautiful, but horrifying journey down this interstellar highway. Such a dazzling sequence captures the sense of fear and awe of what lies in space, showing just how infinitesimal humanity is in this vast universe.
However, what really stands out is how Dave, after literally seeing his life flash before his eyes, transforms into a glowing and fetal “Star Child” on his deathbed. Such a sublime ending stands as a glorious depiction of humanity reaching the next stage in its evolution. Dave is born again as he ascends to this godlike state, giving him a new perspective of everything as he hovers above the Earth. Thus, his eyes seem to be filled with childlike wonder as he stares down at his home world, and the audience is left wondering what the future holds for Dave and the rest of humanity.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
In the original Planet of the Apes, astronaut George Taylor finds himself on a planet dominated by intelligent apes, and he manages to escape becoming another one of their enslaved humans with his new companion, Nova. However, when they travel to the Forbidden Zone, Taylor finds the half-buried Statue of Liberty, realizing that he is actually on Earth and that it had been destroyed by nuclear war.
It’s a haunting conclusion that leaves the audience members fearing for themselves, as it showcases how easily humanity can destroy itself and the world with the technology it wields. And with some fearing that the planet is closer than ever to doomsday, this ending continues to make Planet of the Apes a timeless classic.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back blew audiences away as it shows the film’s beloved heroes suffering terrible losses. Luke is defeated in battle by Darth Vader, the Rebels are forced to flee from the Empire, and Han is taken to Jabba the Hutt frozen in carbonite. Oh, and Luke just learned that Vader is his father.
Nevertheless, the film still displays a glimmer of hope for Luke and his allies as Lando and Chewie fly off to find Han. Films rarely manage to capture the feeling of optimism behind the hero’s crushing failure quite like this, especially when the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance. The shot of the group gazing out at the shining galaxy very much captures the idea that a better future still waits for them all, making it the perfect cliffhanger to leave audiences on.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
After everything he endured, and after all of Marvel’s heroes come together to try and stop him, Thanos succeeds in acquiring all six Infinity Stones and wipes out half of all life in the universe. Marvel Studios had spent 10 years building up its cinematic universe with heroes that audiences would come to know and love, and with a snap of his fingers, Thanos tore it all down in a horrifying display of power at the end of Avengers: Infinity War.
As many of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes turn to dust, audiences are forced to watch one horrifying death after another. From Spider-Man begging for his life to Groot reaching to his “dad,” Rocket, so much hope is shattered in this one scene. But while everyone is in shock over their devastating loss, Thanos sits down on another planet and watches the sunrise. Having finally done what he thought was best for the universe, Thanos smiles with satisfaction over his victory in probably the most haunting cliffhanger ever filmed.
Back to the Future (1985)
After Marty returns to the present day in Back to the Future, it seems his life has taken a turn for the better now that his family is happy, healthy, and successful in this new reality. But just as he’s about to kiss his girlfriend, Jennifer, Doc Brown appears in the DeLorean and tells Marty that he has to go back to the future with him.
This scene electrifies the audience’s imagination, as it leaves them guessing what has become of Marty and Jennifer’s kids and what they will find in the distant future. And with Doc delivering that iconic line before the DeLorean flies away into the unknown, the film ends on the highest note possible.
The Thing (1982)
After MacReady blows up the Blair-Thing and destroys the research base in The Thing‘s final act, he finds that he and Childs are the only two survivors of the alien’s rampage. However, MacReady suspects that Childs may have been assimilated by the Thing while they were separated. Seeing that they are both tired and will likely freeze to death, the two men decide that it’s pointless to distrust each other. And so, MacReady gives Childs a bottle of Scotch, and the film ends as they wait to see what happens.
This bleak and ambiguous ending nails the feeling of paranoia that the Thing has instilled in the characters. Even after its supposed death, this microscopic threat has infected everyone with fear that made their destruction all but inevitable. Though it has been analyzed and speculated on for decades, people still can’t figure out if either MacReady or Childs is the Thing in disguise. But the fact that it has remained a huge mystery for so long only shows how terrifying John Carpenter’s film and its titular creature really are.
At the end of Jordan Peele’s recent masterpiece Nope, after capturing clear photographic proof of the alien Jean Jacket’s existence, Em rejoices as she sees the beast get blown to pieces by the giant balloon it consumed. The ending starts off bittersweet, as OJ had seemingly given his life to distract Jean Jacket and save Em. But as the final song swells in the background, Em sees OJ appear in the distance atop his horse like a Western hero, giving the underrated sci-fi movie Nope a triumphant finale.
Despite this, the movie implies that Em imagines OJ or that she sees his ghost in the afterlife thanks to the ethereal setting and the “Out Yonder” sign in front of him. In addition, the sign’s framing of OJ harks back to The Horse in Motion, the world’s first motion picture that his ancestor was a part of. So whether or not OJ survived, this ending embodies how he has finally lived up to his family’s legacy and kept it going by helping Em defeat the Jean Jacket, making him a legend.