The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

The Trouble with Endings

James Schellenberg
Posted May 19, 2005

Hey Spielberg! Get somebody to finish the script.I’ve noticed recently that otherwise good stories have been let down by their endings. It’s partly due to the expectations of the audience: you can imagine any kind of ending you want, but when the ending finally arrives, it’s been narrowed down to a single one of those possibilities and it might not be as good as the one in your head (I argued this was the case for Stephen King’s Dark Tower series).

The other reason for a bad ending: nobody in charge thought about it. And in the case of Minority Report, the filmmakers clearly had no freaking idea what to do with the conclusion of the story, and decided to just keep throwing more and more junk at the screen.

I was thinking about Minority Report and its painful ending because I recently watched the zombie movie 28 Days Later. As far as zombie flicks go, it was reasonably creepy, at least until I started watching some of the extras on the DVD. Not only was there an alternate ending, there was an alternate last half. The creative team had a solid premise, but the ending, such as it was, suddenly felt very arbitrary to me.

It’s certainly true that when a writer of any kind is looking at a story, they’ll consider a number of different conclusions. That’s normal, but the process is best served by picking one that fits the tone and (for lack of a better word) meaning of the story. If you don’t know how to end your movie or book, to me that’s a sign that you don’t know what your story is about or how it will affect the audience.

Now, what movie did this remind me of? Oh yeah, Minority Report.

I actually give fairly high marks to this movie. It has a strong pedigree: it’s based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, one of the notable writers in the genre (and whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was filmed as Blade Runner); it’s directed by Stephen Spielberg, who is no slouch in the blockbuster scifi department; and it stars Tom Cruise, who despite being a bland-y superstar has actually acted for some of the best directors (Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott among them).

Minority Report also has a high dose of the cognitive kick that makes for the best science fiction. The movie takes Dick’s idea — policing based on precognition — and collides it full tilt into recent notions of the surveillance society. It’s wildly scary when advertisers know your every purchasing habit, the police have a way of predicting what you’ll do and arrest you before you’ve committed a crime, and there’s no escape from this dazzling matrix of social control.

Hey Spielberg! Get somebody to finish the script.I should also mention that the movie has some awesome action sequences. The best two are a pair that happen right in the middle of the movie. Tom Cruise is on the run, and he is up against a squad of cops who have jetpacks (a scene that keenly demonstrates the movie’s sardonic sense of humour). He also fights the police in a fully-automated car factory — lots o’ destruction.

Now, it’s a bit absurd to show a future that has completely destroyed the freedom of the individual, then fall back on nonsensical action movie heroics as the way out. That’s not a surprise, seeing how the plot of most Hollywood scifi movies are constructed, but it’s still absurd in this context.

The bigger sin of the movie is easy to summarize: the ending stinks. For several reasons. The first is that the plot holes begin to accumulate, and if you’re the kind of person who cares about that kind of stuff, it gets on your nerves. Why is the police building so poorly secured? The people with precognition — they can apparently only see murders ahead of time, but later on a chase sequence directly contradicts this. And so forth.

I’m more worried about two other aspects of the ending. People call it a false ending when you think the story is over but it keeps going. At the cheapest level, this is like the slasher movie villain who doesn’t die. Minority Report is a little more sophisticated but it still has about half an hour of screen time at the conclusion that takes place after the apparent finale. I understand that this is a valid narrative trick, but it has to be done well or your audience will be annoyed with you. You have to earn it with something striking as a payoff.

That’s related to my other point about the ending. Writing a story about a totalitarian society is tricky because the denouement for any individual is almost always tragic (see my discussion of this with regard to Fahrenheit 451). If you want a happy ending, you have to work hard to convince the audience either a) the protagonist brought down the system single-handedly or b) the protagonist happened to live at the historical moment when a great number of people brought about change together. Minority Report wants option a) for Tom Cruise, along with a romantic ending, and it doesn’t feel right in comparison to all the hard work the movie did earlier convincing us of the scary and terrible nature of this societal system.

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