I’m generally someone who’s content with the ending of a movie. Yet, like most of you, I’m also curious more often than not when there’s one or more alternate endings for a movie. For me personally it’s rare that a movie’s alternate conclusion becomes a more appropriate fit than what was ultimately chosen for release. To be fair, alternate endings are often experienced in the abstract, meaning we don’t watch them with the movie itself. We have to make that connection ourselves. Maybe it’s just a complete lack of imagination on my part, but most alternate endings are simply interesting.
What if the movie had gone with something different? What if the happy ending was a dour note that doesn’t quite fit the rest of the film? What if it’s just too ridiculous to be believed? I decided this month for Make the Case to look at some of the most memorable alternate endings I’ve seen. That doesn’t necessarily make them good, or more urgent than whatever the canonical climax might have been, but there are always exceptions to the rule.
Also, obviously we’re going to be dealing with some pretty significant spoilers for each film, so keep that in mind before you pop over to Twitter to scream at me because you couldn’t find the time to see something that was in theaters when Clinton was President.
Let’s get started.
5. True Romance (1993)
Director: Tony Scott
The Movie: A pop culture geek (Christian Slater, playing an idealized version of screenwriter Quentin Tarantino) falls in love with a prostitute (Patricia Arquette), helps her steal a mass of cocaine from her bizarre pimp (Gary Oldman), and tries to get rich in Hollywood. The premise is executed beautifully with a massive cast, memorable dialog, and some perfectly paced action movie beats. It’s one of the best things to come out of American filmmaking in the 90s, which is saying a lot.
The Ending: Clarence (Slater) and Alabama (Arquette) miraculously survive their increasingly bleak situation, escape with a ton of money, and live happily ever after on an island paradise with their child. The late, great Tony Scott (Top Gun, Man on Fire, The Last Boy Scout), whose brother we’ll get to later, opted for this ending because he felt audiences would care too much about our heroes to go with the ending screenwriter Tarantino originally envisioned.
The Alternate: In Tarantino’s original version, Clarence dies, Alabama escapes with the money alone, and indicates via monologue that she never really cared about Clarence to begin with. Real cheerful, Quentin.
Which One Works Best? For me, the original ending works best. As Scott rightly predicted, a big part of True Romance’s appeal boils down to how much we like Clarence and Alabama. Tarantino’s original ending, which he later agreed would have been wrong for the movie Scott directed, essentially punishes the audience for caring. Maybe in a different movie, but it would have been depressing here.
4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Director: James Cameron
The Movie: Picking up after the events of James Cameron’s groundbreaking 1984 sci-fi/horror hybrid The Terminator, the sequel opts to be a deliriously ambitious action epic in which future savior John Connor and his mother Sarah team up with a Terminator sent from the future to protect John from a new threat. Terminator 2: Judgement Day is still one of the best action films ever made. Nothing in the franchise has topped this masterpiece, although lord knows they’ve tried.
The Ending: Our heroes manage to survive long enough to destroy Robert Patrick’s frightening liquid metal killing machine the T-1000. The film ends with John’s Terminator destroying himself to preserve the hope of a future without Skynet. Nonetheless, things end on an ominous note with voiceover narration by Sarah indicating that the future is ultimately what we make of it.
The Alternate: Good news, everyone: We absolutely stomped Skynet’s ass and saved the future for everyone! The film ends with an older Sarah Connor playing with her granddaughter at a playground like the one from an earlier nuclear holocaust-themed nightmare.
Which One Works Best? Terminator 2: Judgment Day is perfect from top to bottom, which includes the ending James Cameron ultimately chose. However, given the 30+ years of mediocre sequels and reboots that we’ve gotten since this movie’s release, an ending that provides the first two films with a vital sense of closure might have been a better choice.
3. Election (1999)
Director: Alexander Payne
The Movie: A likable high school government teacher named Jim (Matthew Broderick, playing Jim as the sad-sack middle-aged inevitability of Ferris Bueller) decides to bring down an ambitious high school student. Tracy (Reese Witherspoon in one of her best) wants to win the school election at any cost, and Jim soon finds his entire life jeopardized by his fixation on stopping her. Election is the best kind of satire, with compelling characters and a frightening, funny story that hasn’t lost its pointed perspective on politics or the chaotic machinations of our respective micro-universes.
The Ending: Jim’s life completely goes off the rails, which is fine because as it turns out he’s kind of a putz. His efforts to destroy a child collapse under the weight of his own weakness and stupidity. Eventually Jim loses his wife, job, and pretty much everything else. When we see him at the end of the movie, he’s throwing drinks at Tracy as she’s driving away, having moved on from high school to bigger and better things. We leave him to deal with the next generation of ruthless dreamers at his new museum tour guide job.
The Alternate: In an ending more in step with the original novel, Tracy and Jim have a conversation following Tracy’s graduation in which Tracy admits uncertainty and concern over her seemingly perfect future. Jim gives her some measure of comfort. Everyone just kind of stares out the window and waits out the clock.
Which One Works Best? While I haven’t read this book, although I’ve always meant to, the recently resurfaced alternate ending doesn’t fit the rest of the movie. Making Jim pay for his numerous crimes, particularly in the form of forcing him to see Tracy succeeding despite his creepy, self-destructive efforts, is essential. Tracy might be insufferable, with everyone in Election pretty much sucking to one degree or another, but she’s also still a child. The alternate ending acknowledges this, and that’s at least interesting, but in doing so undermines everything the movie has shown us so far. The chosen ending supports the dark comedic journey we’ve just gone through.
2. Clue (1985)
Director: Jonathan Lynn
The Movie: Completely bucking the notion that making an entire movie based on a murder mystery board game is goofy even by the standards of Hollywood, Clue is one of the best ensemble comedy films of the 1980s. A smart script with ample room for chaotic silliness, the film features Tim Curry, Michael McKean, Madeline Khan, Colleen Camp, Christopher Lloyd, Lesley Ann Warren, Martin Mull, and Eileen Brennan giving some of their best performances. Clue has been a quotable cult favorite for years, and it’s never too late to discover one of the best things that horrible decade ever gave us.
The Ending: This is where things get a little convoluted. Perhaps the most famous example of famous alternate endings for movies in this column, Clue doesn’t have just one ending. In a genuinely interesting effort to do something genuinely different in a theatrical setting, the ending you might see in theaters depended on when and where you were seeing the film. Three different endings were filmed and sent out, meaning you would have to see the movie more than once to see every possible conclusion. In this day and age, the movie comes with all three endings shown in succession.
The Alternate: But wait, there’s more. A fourth ending is known to have existed at one time. It was conceived and filmed with the other three but was never shown publicly. While we may never find the actual film, we do know the fourth ending would have placed Wadsworth (Curry) as the killer, with Wadsworth attempting an escape, only to wind up trapped in a car with a German Shepherd. Everyone else is poisoned and presumably dies.
Which One Works Best? Honestly, they’re all entertaining and plausible within the context of the film, so I say choose your favorite Clue ending and live your best life.
1. Blade Runner (1982)
Director: Ridley Scott
The Movie: Blade Runner begins with Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford in one of many iconic roles), a weary cop struggling to survive in a dystopian 2019 Los Angeles. Deckard is tasked with hunting down four synthetic humans known as replicants. Forced to the task, Deckard soon discovers in this essential neo-noir classic that this is not going to be as simple as just hunting them down. Blade Runner is a dense piece of bleak, visually astonishing sci-fi entertainment. It exists in several different camps and yet retains a cohesiveness that makes it one of the most exhilarating experiences you could ever have with a movie.
The Ending: Despite everything we’re shown in this hellish neon world on the brink of oblivion, with man and machine choking in the shadows of a dying planet, Blade Runner’s original ending is optimistic. Deckard survives his efforts to track down replicants Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer in strong, singular form) and the others. Punctuated by unnecessary narration, we learn Deckard and love interest Rachel (an underrated Sean Young) have escaped Los Angeles intact. The future might be uncertain, but gosh darnit, they’re going to face it together.
The Alternate: Blade Runner exists in several forms, with varying running times and narrative choices. There are technically seven different cuts of the movie available, but we’re just going to focus on the most famous ones. The 1982 theatrical release imagines a happy ending, features narration, and in no way implies that Deckard himself might be a replicant. The 1992 director’s cut and final cut supervised by Scott himself several years later removes the narration, ends on a darker, more abrupt note, and heavily implies Deckard is indeed a replicant.
Which One Works Best? While Blade Runner would finally get a sequel in 2017 with Blade Runner 2049, which came with some shocking revelations on Deckard and Rachel’s lives after the events of the first film, we’re really no closer to a definitive answer to the Deckard/replicant question. It’s hard not to be a little sentimental about the original theatrical ending, but it’s clear by comparing that to Ridley Scott’s final cut that Scott’s creative choices were correct the first time around.
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