Most movies are self-contained, complete with concise beginnings, chaotic middles, and tight-knit endings. And that’s how most people like their stories. But movies are also canvases to explore big ideas and philosophical concepts that may not have easy answers. In these cases, a clean ending may not be a good or even honest one.

The science-fiction genre has been an especially fertile ground to explore larger-than-life and thought-provoking themes like immortality, the afterlife, and the very essence of humanity - topics that humans have probed for thousands of years. Because we don’t have the answers, films that dabble in these esoteric themes are often ambiguous, spurring heated debates and endless discussions. If that sounds up your alley, here are ten awesome sci-fi movies with ambiguous endings.

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10 Memoria


Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a rising star in the art-house circuit. To say his films are niche is would be an understatement; they are deliberately-paced and refuse to adhere to a traditional structure or narrative. But patient viewers who hand themselves over will be rewarded with a complex and emotionally-rich experience. And Weerasethakul’s latest, Memoria, is no different.

Tilda Swinton stars as Jessica, a Scottish woman living in Colombia, who awakes one night to the sound of a mysterious loud boom. This sound repeats with no discernable pattern, and it quickly becomes apparent to Jessica that she is the only one who can hear it. The film tracks her journey to find the source of the noise, which may or may not have cosmic origins.

Memoria is incredibly slow, and though that may sound like a bad thing, Weerasethakul is able to harness the film’s long beats of silence to create something truly hypnotic. And unlike other films on this list, Memoria actually provides an answer to its central mystery, but like any great ending, the ramifications of the answers only inspire more questions.

9 The Thing (1982)

the thing ending - cliffhanger
Universal Pictures

John Carpenter’s seminal science-fiction horror film The Thing is a certified classic in the genre. The film is a remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World (which itself is an adaptation of a 1938 novella). The original movie was made during the height of the Red Scare, and was a reflection of that era’s growing mistrust and fear of communism.

Although Carpenter’s remake relocated the story to Antarctica and toned down the more overt political undertones of the original, he maintained the uneasy paranoia that made The Thing From Another World so effective. The so-called Thing at the center of Carpenter’s film is an alien life form with the ability to consume and imitate other living organisms. Conflict and paranoia consume the team of scientists trapped at the isolated Arctic research base as they realize any one of them could be the monster.

The ambiguity and uncertainty that pervades the entire film continues through the last frame. After the Thing is seemingly destroyed at the climax of the movie, Childs and MacReady - the only survivors - reconvene after being separated during the chaos. With no help on the way, the two are left to freeze to death in the rubble of the burning base, leaving the audience to wonder if one of them actually is no longer human.

8 High Life

Robert Pattinson in High Life

Claire Denis - the revered French auteur behind Beau Travail and most recently The Stars at Noon - made the leap into science fiction territory with the 2018 movie High Life.

Robert Pattinson stars as Monte, an astronaut struggling to survive and take care of his daughter Willow on an isolated ship floating through space. Through flashbacks, we learn that he was part of a crew made up of prisoners, who were sent on a suicide mission to the far reaches of space to study and potentially harvest the energy emanating from black holes. The prisoners are also subjected to the insidiously perverted whims of their captain, Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a scientist who is using them in her human reproductive experiments. In short, she wants to be the first woman to create life in the vacuum of space.

Denis’s film dabbles in faith and politics, but High Life also looks to question the boundaries that separate humans from animals. Monte and Willow have survived long enough, but their supplies are running low, and they’re on a collision course with a black hole that will most likely destroy them. When they’re presented with an opportunity to potentially break free from their cataclysmic trajectory, they’re forced to grapple with the cost of their survival - can they maintain their humanity in the depths of space? The closing shot of the film doesn’t offer a clear answer.

7 Total Recall (1990)

Tri-Star Pictures

Paul Verhoeven’s '90s action masterpiece Total Recall is deceptively deep; beneath its gory B-movie exterior is a satire targeting powerful corporations and unchecked privatization. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who buys an “implanted memory” of him having a planet-hopping adventure on Mars. But when the implant goes awry, Quiad finds his supposedly fictional adventure playing out in reality. Is he really a brain-wiped secret agent, or is this all part of the implant?

Verhoeven seems to enjoy playing with the film’s ambiguity, and even uses Schwarzenegger’s star-power to feed into the viewer’s uncertainty. Schwarzenegger was one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars, so it’s believable for him to be a participant in an actual cosmic conspiracy (in movies, that is). Then again, maybe the movie is just the adventure Quaid paid for. Both answers are possible, but the real question that Verhoeven seems to be asking is: does it even matter?

RELATED: Best Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies from the 90s, Ranked

6 Stalker

Stalker Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky is a world-renowned director whose films are slow yet engrossing, with them opting to focus on human eccentricities and larger-than-life philosophical quandaries than traditional narratives. And one of his best films is the science-fiction drama Stalker.

Stalker, which is loosely adapted from the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, follows two men - a Writer looking for inspiration, and a Professor wanting to make the scientific discovery of a lifetime - who hire a guide to lead them through a hazardous quarantined area in Russia known as The Zone, wherein lies a fabled room that is said to grant a person’s innermost desires. The movie is laboriously slow but always engrossing, and favors philosophical rumination and delicate character moments over showy narrative beats.

Tarkovsky films his script through a purposefully obtuse lens, giving viewers only the barest of details to eke out the specifics of the story. It makes for a sometimes frustrating but always fascinating experience, and culminates in a quietly effective climax that makes you question what makes you you.

5 eXistenZ

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law in eXistenZ
Momentum Pictures

One of David Cronenberg’s more underrated features, eXistenZ stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller, a renowned video game designer responsible for creating state-of-the-art virtual reality games in the near future. She finds herself trapped in a groundbreaking game of her own creation, hunted by assassins sent by her company’s competitors.

Much like Total Recall, Cronenberg is interested in dissecting the meaning of reality in eXistenZ. When the line between the game world and the real world blurs together, then what’s the difference? The film concludes with Allegra and Ted Pikul (Jude Law) discovering that everything they had experienced up to that point was only a game. But even as the credits roll, the audience is left to wonder whether they’re still plugged in, or if they’ve finally made it out.

4 Blade Runner

Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard in Blade Runner
Warner Bros.

Ridley Scott’s influential noir-tinged epic Blade Runner was one of the most thought-provoking and philosophical science-fiction movies of the 1980s. Incorporating elements of Andrei Tarkovsky with a neon-soaked noir atmosphere, the film ruminates on what it is that makes us human.

Adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by renowned author Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner is set in the dystopian future of Los Angeles circa 2019, whereby synthetic humans known as “replicants” have been manufactured by the powerful Tyrell conglomerate for the purpose of space colony labor. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a “Blade Runner,” someone tasked with tracking down and terminating any errant replicants who have infiltrated Earth’s deteriorating society. His latest assignment is to track down Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the head of a fugitive group of replicants.

Over the course of the film, Decker struggles with the ramifications of his brutal actions: is he committing murder by “retiring” these replicants? Just because they aren’t human, are they not deserving of being treated like one? Scott concludes the film on an ambiguous note, leaving Deckard and the audience to question whether or not he is actually a replicant, too.

3 Inception

inception cillian
Warner Bros. Pictures

Christopher Nolan’s twisty heist movie Inception is one of the most influential and original science-fiction movies of this century (and arguably all time). Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, a professional thief who has the ability to steal information from people’s minds by infiltrating their dreams.

For his latest assignment, however, Cobb is forced to infiltrate a billionaire’s mind not to steal something, but to plant an idea, requiring him and his team to descend further into the subconscious than they ever thought possible. It’s a fragile and incredibly delicate job, and the distinction between what’s real and what isn’t begins to blur.

The movie is well-known for its infamous cut-to-black ending, where the audience is left wondering whether Cobb has made it back home, or if he’s still trapped in his subconscious. Although the ending is certainly ambiguous, Nolan has implied that there is an answer. (Hint: look at the children’s clothes). Regardless of the answer, Inception’s effectively ambiguous ending has been the source of a lot of passionate debate, and is one of the many reasons why the film is so memorable.

2 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001 A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is arguably the science-fiction movie. Nearly sixty years after its original release, the film still manages to dazzle and inspire. It’s a genuine piece of art, and it wouldn’t be hyperbole to label one of the greatest films ever made. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy film to understand. On the contrary, its philosophical leanings and disconnected narrative have contributed to its enduring legacy.

As the title implies, Kubrick’s movie is very much an odyssey, beginning in the prehistoric era and transporting viewers across time and space, all mysteriously connected by the Monolith, an alien artifact of unknown origins.

2001 is a puzzle; every theme and symbol has been analyzed and picked apart by scholars and amateur cinephiles for decades. What is the meaning of the Monolith? Where did it come from? The film’s climax - the Stargate sequence - ends the story on an ambiguous note, sling-shotting our protagonist far into the future, one on the cusp of a new cosmic era. It’s thrilling, hypnotic, and leaves the audience with a lot to think about.

RELATED: 10 Movies to Watch if You Love 2001: A Space Odyssey

1 Annihilation

The research team in Annihilation.
Paramount Pictures

Alex Garland is a powerful storyteller, whose films tease the brain as much as they please the eyes. Of his three directorial efforts, the one that (arguably) stands above the rest is his psychedelic and mind-bending science-fiction movie Annihilation. It’s both artful and scintillating; replete with beautiful imagery and philosophical implications.

Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same name (and the first in a trilogy), Annihilation follows a group of women scientists - led by Natalie Portman’s Lena - who venture into the Shimmer, a mysterious zone in the Everglades overtaken by a rapidly-growing alien presence that is mutating the plants and wildlife. As the zone expands at an alarming rate, Lena and her team are tasked with learning how the Shimmer operates in the hopes they can stop it from consuming the entire planet.

Garland doesn’t provide many explanations or offer any straight-forward answers; much like the characters, the audience is left in the dark about the true nature and motivations of the alien presence. The ending only seems to double down on the film’s unrelenting ambiguity, delivering a climax that is both beautiful and utterly beguiling (in the best possible way).