I apologize for harassing you yet again, but we need to talk about the way you end your movies.
(Before I say anything else to Hollywood, be warned that this letter will address the endings of SOURCE CODE and LIMITLESS. So if you haven’t seen these films be aware there will be third-act SPOILERS.)
My complaint today, Hollywood, relates to the overabundance of unnecessary, clean, happy endings.
Though storytelling evolved out of a need to pass on lessons of survival, it has become our primary form of escapism. What better escape from life than the happy ending, a phenomenon that eludes us in the real world (as opposed to the reel world).
And they lived happily ever after…
It is fitting then, that most films have happy endings. But not every narrative lends itself to a happy ending. What bothers me, Hollywood, is when you shoehorn in a happy ending that doesn’t fit the thusly established narrative, abandoning the rules or tone of the film as already established.
Let me turn to two recent science fiction films as examples of what I felt were crammed-in, sickly sweet happy endings that didn’t fit the other 95 percent of the story: SOURCE CODE and LIMITLESS.
I’ll start with LIMITLESS. The film stars Bradley Cooper as a deadbeat writer who receives a pill that unlocks the full potential of his brain, opening a world of possibilities. Halfway through the film we learn that this newfound power comes at a great price. Quitting the miracle drug leads to severe illness, often followed by death.
In the final scene of the film, Robert DeNiro’s character approaches Cooper who by this point is running for the Senate. DeNiro threatens Cooper, informing him that he now owns all the labs that Cooper set up to replenish his supply of the miracle drug. If Cooper wants to stay at the top of his game and avoid a death due to withdrawal, he’ll do exactly what DeNiro says. Cooper quickly squashes this attempted blackmail, exhibiting for DeNiro that he is just as quick and sharp as when he was on the pill, yet he has found a way to function at such capacity without it.
To be fair, this ending is somewhat ambiguous. It is possible that Cooper’s character is lying to DeNiro’s. He might still be on the miracle drug. Or maybe he has discovered a way to synthesize the drug, creating a version that is no longer delivered in the form of a daily and deadly pill.
Either way, it all rings false following the narrative set forth in the past two hours. If there is no cost for the benefits Cooper is clearly experiencing at the end of the film, then what is the point of this story? The theme of the film seems to be that great power comes at great cost, but by the end the screenwriter has waved her magic wand and decreed that this no longer applies; now Cooper is free to imbibe without any consequences.
A more fitting ending would be more downbeat, as I believe the source novel, THE DARK FIELDS by Alan Glyn, ends. Just because you see the opportunity to make a few more bucks, Hollywood, doesn’t mean LIMITLESS has to be subjected to a happy ending.
In SOURCE CODE, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier sent back in time using a device called “Source Code” to a commuter train eight minutes before it is destroyed by a bomb. Gyllenhaal must relive these eight minutes again and again until he can find the bomber, preventing a future terrorist attack by the same terrorist. There’s a twist toward the end of the film where Gyllenhaal learns that he has been in a helicopter crash prior to being incorporated into Source Code. Though he imagines himself in some sort of Source Code cockpit, in reality his is a badly scarred body on life support, only existing either in his own head or on the train.
Gyllenhaal goes back into Source Code and, would you believe it, he’s successful at stopping the bomber and saving the train! When his eight minutes are up, we are treated to a beautifully cathartic ending where Gyllenhaal finally kisses Michelle Monaghan (his love interest in the film), surrounded by all the characters whose lives he has saved as Farminga pulls the plug. It’s a bittersweet ending. Though Gyllenhaal has died, he is able to finally achieve the perfect scenario in his last eight minutes in Source Code… And he gets the girl!
This is the film’s ideal ending. It fits the narrative that came before and manages to be uplifting while also sad. This ending is marred by the unnecessary, second ending that follows. I really don’t need to get into this ending to make my point, but I will say that it is sickly sweet – a little too perfect for what has been presented prior.
In this example, the second ending includes another science fiction twist, so it may exist because the writer wasn’t willing to lose his last “clever” twist. Whatever the reason, this second ending brings down the quality of what is otherwise a pretty solid science fiction picture.
So please, Hollywood, put a little more care into the way you end films. Don’t graft on a happy ending where it doesn’t belong! Once and a while, it’s refreshing when things end poorly… like life!