The frustration, shock, and insane theories that follow after a cliffhanger ending aren't always equal. Maybe they'll cause raucous debate amongst cinephiles for decades over deeper meanings. Or maybe they'll leave audiences confused and disappointed by lazy writing.
Some cliffhangers live forever in the minds of watchers who still wonder about what they think took place after the credits left them hanging. But most cliffhangers can feel unearned and manipulative, as though hinting at a narrative complexity that doesn't really exist.
Cliffhanger endings are popularly attributed to Charles Dickens, who started the trend with his debut novel, The Pickwick Papers. Ever since, storytellers and filmmakers across the globe have used cliffhangers to avoid cleanly wrapped endings to their tales.
It's a tough skill to master, being able to leave threads untied in a way that still feels satisfactory. A cliffhanger ending needs to be memorable, but not in a way that makes the audience feel cheated.
Here are our picks for the best cliffhanger endings in movies and why they succeeded when so many others have failed.
8. Back to the Future (1985)
With Marty McFly back in his own time and with everything better than how he left it at home, he finds his girlfriend Jennifer standing behind him as he admires his new truck. The film is winding down. No more surprises can come along now... right?
Then, just as they're about to kiss, a flash of light interrupts them and the DeLorean appears. Doc Brown—dressed in strange clothes—leaps from the driver's seat to tell Marty that they need to go into the future to sort out Marty and Jennifer's children.
With Marty and Jennifer safely aboard, the DeLorean pulls out into the street. Marty tells Doc to back up if he wants to get to 88 mph, but Doc tells Marty: "Where we're going, we don't need roads."
We're stunned as the coolest car in movie history takes off and flies into the unknown future, in a cliffhanger ending that demanded a sequel.
7. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
When it comes to cinema, it's hard to create a satisfying ending that leaves the audience on a cliffhanger, but Joe and Anthony Russo did just that in Avengers: Infinity War.
As Thanos completes his Infinity Gauntlet and finally acquires the power to wipe out as much of the universe as he chooses, the Mad Titan is axed in the chest by Thor. But Thanos uses his remaining strength to snap his fingers anyway—and obliterates half of all life in the universe.
Thanos then uses the Gauntlet to heal himself and portal away, leaving the Avengers to watch as their friends turn to dust before their eyes.
The final shot finds Thanos sitting on a porch, watching the sunset, knowing that his job is done—and it left fans asking every question imaginable about the sequel that was an entire year away.
6. The Italian Job (1969)
The Italian Job is the ultimate heist comedy about Michael Caine's Charlie Croker (along with his band of merry thieves) as they attempt to steal £4 million in gold bullion from the Italian government in Turin.
Of course, the plan goes off without a hitch as the thieves get away with their crime, and they're last seen making their way along the winding roads of the Alps aboard a bus with the looted gold.
However, after some overly playful driving, the bus crashes and ends up teetering on the edge of a cliff, the gold at one end and the men at the other. A literal cliffhanger ending!
The movie leaves the crew trying to work out how they'll get the gold without tipping the bus over the cliff to their deaths, and that ending has had people thinking of possible solutions since 1969.
5. Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola's understated masterpiece follows the life of a faded movie star and a recently graduated student who has no idea what to do with her life or her new husband. The two of them meet in a Tokyo hotel, and the film's story has only improved with age.
The closer the pair grow to one another, the more intimate the details they tell one another. Despite their significant age gap, they're kindred spirits. However, when it comes time for Bill Murray's Bob Harris to leave Tokyo, the two of them part on uncertain terms.
The final scene finds Bob stopping his car when he spots Charlotte on a street in a crowd of people. They share a kiss—connecting on a physical level for the first time—and Bob whispers something in her ear before he leaves, with her smiling in his wake.
4. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter's horror flick The Thing is about a morphing alien that infiltrates and ruins a camp of Antarctic researchers. The story of how nearly everyone involved dies has become a classic genre staple.
The final scene finds MacReady—having blown up the camp and the craft that the creature was building—waiting to die in the frozen hell because he's now unable to reach the outside world.
Then, to his surprise, Childs (who he thought had died after leaving his post) appears and joins him. Neither has any idea whether the other is an alien, and they have no reason to fight since they'll both soon be dead. It gives us an ending that inspires strong debate to this day.
3. Before Sunrise (1995)
Did Jesse and Celine make it to Vienna six months later? Or did it all go wrong? Well, the answer came almost a decade later.
But when Before Sunrise first released, we saw Jesse and Celine share one final emotional kiss on the train platform before Jesse departs for the airport, and we're left suspended in complete limbo.
The whole film showed the pair walking around the Austrian capital, talking all day long about their lives, what they wanted from the world, and their futures—all the while realizing that their growing connection was too special to break when it came time to depart.
As they depart one another, their future remains a tantalizing mystery. Of course, now we know that Jesse and Celine didn't meet again six months later. But they did eventually end up together, and it was a wild journey.
2. Inception (2010)
Did the totem fall, meaning Cobb was back with his real children? Or was the ending a fictional layer of his unconscious state?
Christopher Nolan's Inception left audiences speechless as the final shot cut to black just as the totem wobbled in its spin, giving the vaguest hint that Cobb may have truly made it back after all.
However, the question remains unanswered to this day. What is the definitive truth behind the spinning-wobbling totem? We'll probably never know for sure, but the film's cliffhanger ending ensured that the film is still talked about a decade on from its finale.
1. Blade Runner (1982)
There's a solid case to be made for Blade Runner 2049 occupying a place on this list of movies with cliffhanger endings, given that the sequel found yet another way to end a Blade Runner film with a final shot that left audiences puzzled in the dark.
However, we're choosing to highlight the ending to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: The Final Cut, which showcased a cliffhanger finale that had fans talking and debating for decades over what it meant.
As Deckard returns home to find Rachel alive, they immediately leave to an unknown fate, all while Deckard discovers an origami unicorn that was left for him by Gaff.
The mystery behind the unicorn (which appeared in Deckard's dream) and the question of Deckard's future with Rachel were both completely opaque. Even when Blade Runner 2049 revealed the aftermath, we still asked the big question: "Was Rick Deckard a replicant?"