There are three types of endings. The most common is the happy ending. Far less common is the tragedy which creates a sad ending. Think “Romeo and Juliet,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” or “The Godfather” where the hero fails. In general, Hollywood likes happy endings because people enjoy movies that make them feel good. Hollywood also accepts tragedies as long as the story is compelling. The hardest type of ending to pull off is the ambiguous ending where the climax isn’t clear.
The recent movie, “Annihilation,” represents this ambiguous ending. The movie is a science fiction story about a strange shimmering growth that has engulfed a certain area and teams of men are sent in to explore. Unfortunately, none of the men ever return so finally a team of women is sent in.
The story itself is interesting, but by the time you get to the end, you are never clear about what really happened. First of all, the strange shimmering growth that has taken over a certain area is never explained. What is it really doing and what will happen. Second, the hero’s husband went in earlier and mysteriously returned. Yet in the end, the fate of the hero is vague. She has successfully returned as well from the shimmering growth, but what will happen next is never clarified. It’s like watching “Star Wars” where Luke fires his torpedoes into the Death Star and the movie suddenly ends where you aren’t sure whether Luke succeeded or not. That’s the huge risk of an ambiguous ending.
In “Annihilation,” the ending is ambiguous so it’s hard to define a specific emotion. At the end of “Titanic,” everyone is happy that the hero (Rose) went on to live her own exciting life. At the end of “Die Hard,” everyone knows the villain is dead and the hero is back with his wife. At the end of “Toy Story,” everyone knows the toys have gotten back home and established peace between Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
By the end of “Annihilation,” nobody is sure of anything. When nobody is sure of anything, it’s hard to create a consistent emotion. Without a consistent emotion at the end, everyone has their own interpretation and that leads to wildly different conclusions.
In art and indie films, ambiguous endings are often used to make audiences think at the end. Yet these types of endings are risky because they fail to tell a complete and conclusive story. In rare occasions, an ambiguous ending can work, but for the most part, it’s not the type of ending to strive for. As a general rule, create a happy ending because happy endings are easier to sell. Tragic endings can work along with ambiguous endings, but know that happy endings are far easier and more pleasing to audiences.
Use tragic and ambiguous endings sparingly. They’re more likely to kill interest in your story than make your story more intriguing.