Exit Stage Left: The Ten Best Sci-Fi Movie Endings Of All Time

Leave 'em wanting more.

By David Wharton | Updated

This article is more than 2 years old

EmpireGeek royalty Joss Whedon stirred the pot quite a bit this week by criticizing the ending of arguably the best Star Wars movie of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. His problem with it was that he didn’t like the cliffhanger aspect that left many things unresolved. Whedon said, “I go to movies expecting to have a whole experience. If I want a movie that doesn’t end I’ll go to a French movie. That’s a betrayal of trust to me. A movie has to be complete within itself, it can’t just build off the first one or play variations.”

Aside from that criticism being kind of odd coming from a master of TV cliffhangers, Whedon’s argument has stirred up many fans who love Empire precisely because of its dark, unresolved ending. For the second film of a planned trilogy, it makes sense to end on an ominous down note, thus setting the stakes for the third film to follow. But Whedon’s comments got us thinking: what makes for a truly great ending? We’ll try to answer that question below, with our picks for the Ten Best Science Fiction Movie Endings of All Time.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Empire Strikes Back
This is the one that inspired the entire list, so of course we’ve got to open with it. It’s a dark ending for a dark movie, with our heroes in a dire place. Han’s frozen in carbonite and being shipped off to the so-far-unseen Jabba the Hutt (the CGI special edition abomination doesn’t count). Luke’s minus a hand and wracked by the twin revelations that Darth Vader is his father and that Obi-Wan lied to him. Luke’s world has been shaken to the core, and he’s lost some of that innocent optimism he had in the first film, leaving us to wonder, what will he be like when we see him again in the next film? The future is uncertain, but we’re still left with a note of hope as Luke and Leia stare out at the massed Rebel fleet…

Back to the Future/Back to the Future II
Take your pick of the first or second movie. The original is by far the most iconic, with Doc Brown returning, dressed like a lunatic, and warning Marty that they have to travel into the future because “something’s got to be done about your kids!” After just having had a blast watching Marty and the Doc’s adventures in the past, the tease of getting to see their future was thrilling. All the more so when Doc uttered the famous line, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” For me, though, I love the Back to the Future II’s ending even more. It parallels the first and plays up one of the more entertaining elements of the second movie: multiple versions of the characters running amok through the timeline. It also makes the stakes more tangible. In the first movie, Marty’s kids, who we’ve never met, are the ones in trouble; in the second, it’s the Doc who needs rescuing, and we love that crazy old dude.

Blade Runner
With Blade Runner, the question is always, “Which version?” For my purposes, I’ll take any version that jettisons the mega-happy version with Deckard and Rachael flying away into The Sound of Music. The beautifully ambiguous ending of the most recent versions is damn near perfect. Rachael stepping on the origami unicorn, Deckard picking it up and remembering Gaff’s line, all leading up to note-perfect bit of performance by Harrison Ford, a simple nod as Deckard accepts his fate, turns to leave, and Vangelis’ score kicks in. (It also doesn’t hurt that this ending follows one of the best scenes ever put to film, Roy Batty’s “Tears in rain” speech.)

Children of Men
Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is a movie perpetually bouncing between hope and despair, and that holds true all the way through the film’s final moments. Theo (Clive Owen) has helped Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) give birth to her daughter, the first infant born in two decades, and the pair have made their way onto a small boat, hoping to rendezvous with the Human Project. As we realize that Theo has been fatally shot, there’s no way of knowing don’t know which way things are about to turn. Will Kee and baby Dylan be rescued, or will we be left with an ambiguous and heartbreaking final image of the boat alone in the fog? When the hopeful ending does finally come, Theo’s sacrifice makes it feel well earned.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
You can take your pick from the various cinematic adaptations of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel. I love the 1956 version starring Kevin McCarthy, a razorsharp satire of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia. But for my money, the closing scene of the 1978 version is by far more iconic and terrifying. We see Matthew going about his day in a world where the pod people have almost completely taken over. Nancy spots him on the street and calls to him, thinking he’s still an ally. Instead, he raises a hand and emits the a piercing alien scream. The first time you see it, it’s scary as hell, and that final image has been referenced and parodied countless times since.

Planet of the Apes
Speaking of ending that have been riffed on for decades, this may be hands-down the most infamous science fiction movie ending of all time, and certainly one of the most iconic twists ever. Its lasting impact is no surprise the screenplay for the original Planet of the Apes was penned by none other than Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. The guy knew a thing or two about last-minute twists, and Apes’ final moments live up to his high standards. The slow reveal of the ruined Statue of Liberty, first glimpsed as the camera passes behind the spikes on her crown, allows the emotional weight to hinge on the reaction of Charlton Heston’s marooned astronaut. The audience is given just enough time to hopefully get a dreadful sense of what is coming before the Statue is revealed in all its crumbling glory.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Sometimes a great ending is solely about the final few moments before the credits roll, but sometimes it’s the lead-up to that final image that really sells it, one perfect moment following the other in close succession. In Wrath of Khan, the audience is still reeling from the sacrificial death of Spock, and director Nicolas Meyer doesn’t give us time to recover from that shock. We’re taken to Spock’s funeral, where the emotions run high and rise even higher when Kirk’s voice breaks on the word “human.” As Spock’s body is launched into space, James Horner’s version of “Amazing Grace” swells, and I am reduced to a blubbering baby. Toss in Kirk’s line, “I feel young” and Nimoy’s closing monologue and I am seriously a wreck. As it should be.

The Thing
A perfect example of how well an ambiguous ending can work, John Carpenter’s The Thing leaves us in the same state the characters have been in for most of the movie: uncertain and paranoid. After the bloodbath endings for most of the cast, after the nasty alien critter revealing itself in increasingly more disturbing forms, it finally comes down to a brilliantly simple closing scene: two men, sitting across from each other, unsure whether the other one is human. Kurt Russell and Keith David both nail these closing moments, regarding each other with suspicion, dark humor, and a little healthy fatalism. What happened after the credits rolled? Why don’t we just wait here for a while…see what happens.

Twelve Monkeys
Twelve Monkeys is one of my favorite movies of all time, and it all comes down to the haunting, heartbreaking ending where Cole’s childhood memories finally gain context, and he finally catches up with himself in the saddest way possible. There are tons of different approaches to time travel. Can you change the future? Do all possibilities exist simultaneously in different realities, branching like a tree? Or, to borrow a phrase from another Bruce Willis time travel flick, is the path a circle, round and round? Twelve Monkeys opts for the latter approach, and no other film has done it so beautifully, tragically, perfectly. Unfortunately, I can’t find a full clip of the ending, so the version below will have to do. It’s a testament to director Terry Gilliam’s masterful composition that the sequence can even be watched with the sound off without losing much of its impact.

2010: The Year We Make Contact
I’ll typically find any excuse I can come up with to talk about 2010 on here, but that’s because it was one of the movies that I most loved while growing up, and it’s still one of my favorite movies of all time. And while Stanley Kubrick’s ambiguous, expressionistic ending to 2001 may be the more famous of the two, 2010’s ending is far more satisfying to me. More than anything else, 2010 excels at creating the “sense of wonder” that the best science fiction evokes, and its climactic sequence delivers both on that front and on an emotional level, granting redemption to HAL, answering some questions while presenting others, and leaving it all wrapped up in a closing monologue that is both hopeful and endlessly quotable. It’s…something wonderful. (I’m including two clips so you get the full finale sequence.)

What do you think? What would you add or remove from our list? Sound off in the comments!

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