Good movies keep us talking well after we’ve left the theatre. Great movies keep us talking for decades. Sometimes an ambiguous ending or an unresolved plot mystery can seem lazy, or like a cheap trick. When done with care, they can engage us in ways no concrete resolution could.
Some of the most enduring questions in movie history may have actual answers if the films in question are analysed thoroughly enough. Others are more purposefully ambiguous, with interpretations varying depending on what a given viewer brings with them to the film. In those cases, it’s not that we need to settle on one particular interpretation, more that we need to hold multiple possibilities in our heads at once. But when a movie is truly great, any number of interpretations will hold water, and offer their own ideas to chew on.
Here are 12 of the biggest possibly unanswerable movie debates ever. Be warned: Many of these entries deal with their films’ respective endings, and each contains significant spoilers.
Did Jack need to die? (Titanic, 1997)
Spoilers (I guess?) for the ending of James Cameron’s Titanic. The ship is well on its way to the ocean floor as Kate Winslet’s Rose clings to a fortuitous bit of floating debris: a solid wood “door” to which she’s able to cling. It looks big enough and sturdy enough (as many have argued) that Leo DiCaprio’s Jack could have floated on it comfortably as well (or as comfortably as possible in the below-freezing waters of the North Atlantic) until help could arrive.
The debate is far too intricate to cover all the salient points here, but, as it happens, it’s even more complicated than you might think, because that door probably isn’t even a door. The script only refers to a piece of debris, and the finished prop may well have been inspired by an intricately carved bit of panelling that survives from the actual Titanic (the largest recovered piece, in fact) in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia. So the glib answer is that the two could not possibly have survived on the door, as there was no door.
The Mythbusters crew determined in 2012 that while Rose indeed could’ve survived hypothermia had she stayed on top of the debris, Jack too could have floated with her, and might have survived. Cameron’s traditional response? Essentially, that Jack died because the story required it, and no amount of arguing over minutiae will change that.
As it happens, though, the notoriously detail-conscious director hasn’t been quite able to move on: he’s commissioned a new study that will air in February on National Geographic that he says will prove that while the two might have both fit on the debris together, they wouldn’t have been able to float on it. Looks like Valentine’s Day will pit Cameron against the classic Mythbusters team to see whose sinking analysis holds water.
What happened to Shane? (Shane, 1953)
“Shane, come back!”
Laconic erstwhile gunfighter Shane takes a job as a ranch hand circa 1889 Wyoming, only to find himself drawn into a conflict between the Starrett family and a cattle baron determined to intimidate them out of their land. In the final act, Shane kills several men to protect the family, but an injury leaves his fate ambiguous as he rides off. Is he riding off to spare Joey (Brandon deWilde) the pain of watching him die? Or is he just tired of the annoying kid screaming at him to come back? Is he riding off into exile as penance for the murders he’s felt forced to commit? Or to die in peace? Perhaps he’s simply realised that his attempts at settling down to the life of a rancher are doomed to fail, and that it’s his living that would be the most painful for Marian and Joey.
I’m not sure it really matters much whether Shane dies or not, but I personally respond more to the idea that he lives…not by way of happy ending, but as a tragic acceptance that his kind have no place in their world.
Unlike the science-backed debate over the relative buoyancy of floating debris that characterises the Titanic discussions, I’m not sure that there are many clues to Shane’s fate in the movie itself — certainly not if you want a concrete answer. Any search of online responses to the question, though, suggests that people tend to feel strongly about the ending that they see for themselves.
Who shot first? (Star Wars, 1977)
The answer here is straightforward, but only if you’ve only watched one particular cut of 1977’s Star Wars film. The original release makes it pretty clear that when confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo, smuggler Han Solo shoots him with minimal provocation. A disputed copy of the original shooting script would seem to confirm that unambiguously, but George Lucas himself isn’t so sure that it’s legit.
The 1997 Special Edition rerelease included several changes to the film (a few of them good), but what drew the most discussion was the change to the Han/Greedo scene: Where once Han Solo took a sneaky under-the-table first shot at his pursuer, the updated scene sees Greedo fire first…and miss wildly. While I can understand Lucas wanting to move away from presenting Han as a cold-blooded killer, but the moment is wonky and obviously altered. It’s just weird that Greedo would take a shot at someone a couple of feet away and somehow miss, and also odd that Greedo would try to kill the smuggler mere seconds after stating that Han was going to need to explain himself to Jabba the Hutt. But it’s clear that in 1997, Greedo shot first.
For the more recent high-def Blu-ray restoration, the scene has been altered again so that the two shoot at almost the same time, with Greedo rather hilariously shouting “maclunkey!” as he goes down. (Presumably, some sort of Rodian prayer.) The original movie novelization doesn’t describe the scene in any detail, so no help there, but I think this one is less a matter of settling on a definitive answer than it is one of deciding, Rashomon-style, which version you prefer. I’d imagine that characters within the Star Wars universe have been having a very similar debate over the legendary stare down since a long time ago.
What’s in the box? (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955)
Kiss Me Deadly isn’t just one of the key films of the late noir era, it’s also one of the strangest. For the most part it colours within the genre lines, with a plot involving a hardboiled detective who encounters more than one woman with ambiguous motives. Unexpected elements sneak in, though, including bits of technology that aren’t particularly strange by modern standards but that feel just slightly out of place in the 1950s. Then there’s the box — a “whatsit” in the film’s parlance — that everyone’s keen to get their hands on. Does it contain drugs? Jewels? National secrets? The box gets opened in the final act, but the answer still isn’t forthcoming. We’ve known that it emits heat, but now we see an eerie light and hear some truly freaky sounds that suggest something not quite of this world.
Given the movie’s nuclear-age timeframe, it’s easy to suggest that box involves some kind of heightened version of nuclear material. But it all seems far stranger than that, and different released endings of the film only muddle matters further. The box leads to a significant scene of destruction, which some viewers (myself included) interpret as being very nearly apocalyptic.
So what’s in the box? It’s a question that Quentin Tarantino revisited, after a fashion, in Pulp Fiction, without any more clarity. (Though I’ve always liked the theory that it is Marcellus Wallace’s soul.)
Is Deckard a robot? (Blade Runner, 1982)
Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner introduced one of Harrison Ford’s many indelible characters in Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter taken with hunting down and “retiring” replicants, the androids that are uncomfortably close to humanity, and very hard to detect. There are hints (glowing-ish eyes, dreams of a unicorn, etc.. some of which are only present in the director’s cut of the film) that Deckard might be a replicant himself, without his own knowledge. Yet he also seems to lack some of the qualities of the androids (such as super-strength), and it’s never stated directly one way or the other. Sequel Blade Runner 2049 mostly dodges the question again, though by this point, he’s conceived a child with Sean Young’s replicant Rachael. Which may or may not mean anything with regard to the debate.
As an indication of just how unsolvable the debate is, consider the opinions of the film’s principles: director Ridley Scott says that Deckard is definitively a replicant all the way. But Harrison Ford is pretty sure that he ain’t, as is Hampton Francher, a writer on both of the films.
For a while, it seemed like Denis Villeneuve and the filmmakers behind Blade Runner 2049 would have no choice but to clear things up, but here we are: All our answers washed away, like tears in rain.
What did the blonde say? (The Breakfast Club, 1985)
Judd Nelson’s John Bender is crawling through the ductwork at his high school telling a dirty joke (and who among us hasn’t?):
“A naked blonde walks into a bar, carrying a poodle under one arm and a six foot salami under the other. The bartender says, ‘So, I don’t suppose you’d be needing a drink?’ The blonde says…”
Unfortunately, he falls through a vent just before he gets to the punchline, leaving the joke unfinished. It doesn’t seem to have been a joke that exists in any other form, so any solution would need to spring from what we’re given onscreen. I think I have an idea of where it could have been going, but there could be children present.
Who goes there? (The Thing, 1982)
At the end of John Carpenter’s classic The Thing (a remake of the also classic 1951 film The Thing from Another World), lead MacReady (Kurt Russell) sits with Childs (Keith David) in the smouldering ruins of the Antarctic research base from which they’re the last survivors. A parasitic alien life form with the ability to mimic and replace other beings has sewn fear and paranoia among the scientists and support staff at the station, leading to (most of) their deaths. Now it’s down to two. Childs has been out of our view for sometime, but we’re not entirely sure about MacReady, either: One of them might be an alien, but we don’t know which one, and neither does whichever one is still human.
So the two share a bottle of Scotch, recognising that the time for distrust or conflict has passed and they’re going to die one way or another, so they might as well enjoy their last moments. All well and good for them, but it still leaves us, the audience, with a nagging doubt as to the real identity of these characters we’ve followed through the film.
What’s up with… (The Birds, 1963)
Hitchcock takes no pains whatsoever to explain why the birds are attacking the people of Bodega Bay in The Birds, and that’s very much to the film’s benefit. Their avian behaviour is more reflective of the ups and downs of the various relationships between the main characters, suggesting that the rare moments of real communication and accord between the humans are pleasing to the otherwise blood-hungry birds.
If one is looking for a more literal explanation, I might be able to help. Aside from the Daphne du Maurier short story on which the film is based, Hitchcock was also inspired by 1961 reports of birds (sooty shearwaters, to be precise) having gone rather kookoo in North Monterey Bay in California, flying into objects and alarmingly crashing to the ground. At the time, the phenomenon wasn’t understood, but a similar situation in the same area involving brown pelicans also occurred. In that instance (and presumably the earlier one) the culprit was a diatom called Pseudo-nitzschia. So, in a round-about way, we might be able to blame Hitchcock’s birds on toxic algae.
Cliffhanger? (The Italian Job, 1969)
“Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea…”
…is how The Italian Job ends, with Michael Caine’s Charlie Croker and company teetering over the edge of a literal cliff. This is after the success of the titlular heist involving a fortune in gold bullion and one of cinema’s most memorable car chases through Turin, Italy. Everything seems great until the movie then plays one of cinema’s biggest jokes on its characters: It looks like we’re driving into the closing credits with the coach carrying the team and the money to safety when a tiny steering miscalculation sends them through a guardrail and almost off the edge of a cliff — their hard-won but ill-gotten gold dragging them down.
And that’s where we leave them. They’ve been hanging off the edge of that cliff since 1969. Did the brilliant, resourceful Crocker truly have something else up his sleeve? Or was this where his luck finally ran out?
Science has attempted to come up with a solution, so there might be an answer here. The the Royal Society of Chemistry held a competition to find it, awarding the prize to John Godwin, whose solution involved, essentially, having gang members escape out the front of the bus while slowly adding stones to replace each of their weights…and continuing to add weight to the front to balance and stabilise the dangling rear portion until it’s safe enough to collect the gold. Better them than me, honestly.
Did he or didn’t he? (American Psycho, 2000)
A savage takedown of what was once called yuppie culture, Mary Harron’s American Psycho (from the Bret Easton Ellis novel) paints a portrait of serial killer Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) operating amid the high-powered world of wall street finance. Or does it? By the film’s end, Batemans’s violent antics have become so extreme as to be cartoonish, and his confession to his lawyer is taken as a joke. So did he do any of it? Is he a killer, or a sadist with violent fantasies that he comes to believe are real? (Neither speaks particularly well of him.)
From the movie’s over-the-top violence, it’s easy to believe that Bateman might well be imagining the whole thing. Money seems like an abstraction, but the individuals who move our nation’s capital around hold our lives in their hands as surely as if they were standing over us with a chainsaw. It’s all an apt metaphor, of nothing else. We also learn that people consider Bateman rather spineless and dull, so a power fantasy might not be terribly surprising either. If we choose to accept that Bateman did all of the killings, it adds an extra dimension, for who could believe that a clean-cut, well-turned-out wealthy white man could possibly be responsible for anything like the carnage we see onscreen?
Awake or asleep? (Inception, 2010)
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb specialises in layering dreams within dreams as he carries out corporate espionage, extracting information and also planting ideas in the brains of the unwary. There’s a real danger for Cobb and his fellow extractors: If they’re not careful, they could get trapped within their own subconsciouses, not realising they’re still dreaming. To combat this, each carries a particular totem, an object that they can use to determine the state of reality. In Cobb’s case, it’s a spinning top. Reality dictates that the top will eventually fall, but in a dream it can go on spinning indefinitely. (But what if he dreams the top falls over? WHAT THEN?)
The film concludes with Cobb happily reunited with his children; a happy ending in every meaningful way. Still, he tries the totem to determine whether or not he’s still dreaming, but walks away without waiting for the result. He’s got everything he wants, and so the “reality” of it is meaningless to him, if slightly less so to the audience. We see the top wobble for just a split second, but never actually falls by the time the closing credits roll. Is he awake? Dreaming? Or is the question entirely beside the point?
Whatever happened to…? (Birdman, 2014)
Once and future Batman Michael Keaton stars as Riggan in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The has-been actor (Riggan, never Keaton) is on the verge of a mental collapse even as he’s preparing for his Broadway debut. He has never quite escaped the shadow of the title superhero alter-ego for which he’s best known. His daughter, struggling with her own substance-abuse issues, is ambivalent in her feelings toward him, unable to decide whether it’s love or hatred that she feels. His best friend Mike (Edward Norton) has little desire to live in the real world at all, finding theatrical reality much more appealing (which itself might provide some context for the movie’s ending).
In the climax, and while onstage during a theatrical performance, Riggan replaces the prop gun he’s meant to use with a real gun and shoots himself in the face…only to wake up in the hospital with his daughter by his side to find he’s survived, and that the play’s received rave reviews. Everything is looking up, even though his bandages resemble his Birdman persona — at which point he steps onto the window ledge and takes to the sky, his smiling daughter watching rapturously. What are we to make of the seemingly happy ending? Is it a story of death by suicide onstage? Or of a later death by suicide in the hospital? Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone) first looks down when he steps from the window ledge, but then up. Iñárritu is no stranger to magical realism, so the key to unlocking the ending might be entirely dependent on what you, the viewer, bring to the story.