On unnecessarily sad, negative, depressing endings

I am sick unto death of people responding to criticism of a needlessly dark, pointlessly depressing ending with “Well, in real life, sometimes you don’t get happy endings. That means it’s good!”

No, it doesn’t.

I am not saying that every story needs to have a happy ending, because that would be stupid. Since time immemorial, there have been stories with sad endings. One of the greatest SF/F movies is The Thing, where the best case scenario is that the only two remaining characters die in a few hours, and the entire Earth doesn’t get swallowed up.

The difference is, in that movie the realism EARNS a sad ending. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. The story whittles down the cast little by little, keeping them isolated and self-contained, highlighting the horrors they face, and making it clear that they’ll do whatever it takes to save the Earth. So it doesn’t feel out of place when the main characters are essentially condemned to death by their own actions, because that outcome naturally evolved from the stuff they had been doing and the place they had been.

Compare it to, say, the movie Justice League Dark: Apokalips War or the planned finale of the 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series (before Nickelodeon stepped in and declared it was another dimension or an alternate future or whatever). There was nothing to build up to those dark miserable outcomes. It’s the writing equivalent of “Rocks fall, everybody dies” — the people creating it simply decided to make everything go to hell so it could be crappy. They ultimately made everything that had come before MEANINGLESS for the sake of a dark, unhappy outcome, rather than writing a finale that actually feels satisfying for the audience and draws from what has come before.

Why? Do they think it’s “deep” if a story has a miserable ending, even if that ending isn’t earned and doesn’t naturally stem from anything? Do they think that happy endings “suck,” like some tiresome fourteen-year-old edgelord?

And as a final middle finger to the people who whine that “real life sometimes doesn’t have happy endings,” I ask you: why do you want the worst of reality reflected in fiction? Because when you introduce body-snatching alien parasites, mutant turtles and superheroes on the level of Superman, you have lost claim to “real life.” There are varying degrees of “reality” in any form of fiction, and sci-fi/fantasy is where it has the loosest control over the narrative.

Want to cure someone of cancer? There’s magic and alien technology for that! Want to leave your mundane job behind? That can happen! As long as it’s done with internal consistency and good writing, you can do all sorts of stuff that doesn’t happen in “real life.”

So why should “real life” have a stranglehold over the endings of sci-fi/fantasy TV/movie series/books? If your narrative conventions allow you to do all sorts of incredible unbelievable unrealistic things, why are you inexplicably determined to make “real life” the benchmark?

And considering that “real life” is incredibly sucky and there are no long-term happy endings because we all die, why the hell should our fiction reflect that? Why shouldn’t we have happy endings in fiction?

And again, I’m not saying every ending has to be puppies and rainbows. A good example of a satisfying finale would be Avengers: Endgame, which mixes the tragic with the triumphant. We lose characters we’ve come to love over the course of many years of movies, but it feels earned because their deaths MEAN something to the story. They weren’t killed off because “happy endings suck and we’re edgy,” and the overall feeling is that because they sacrificed their lives, the world has a chance to be a better place where the people they’ve saved can live on.

So a bittersweet or sad ending is not necessarily a bad ending, but it has to be based on something more artistically valid than “well, sometimes there aren’t happy endings in real life and the good guys don’t win!” That is an excuse, not a reason.

If you are giving your story an unhappy, depressing ending just to have it be unhappy and depressing, you are doing a disservice to your art, your characters and your audience. So don’t do it.

Review: The Thing

Imagine that you’re in a remote Antarctic outpost, locked in eternal icy winter, with little to do and only a few people to spend time with. Now imagine that a screaming, fleshy alien horror infiltrates your base, turning everyone it touches into extensions of itself – and if you don’t stop it, the entire planet will be destroyed.

That’s the premise behind “The Thing,” a haunting 1982 horror movie by masterful director John Carpenter. And this classic cult film is a prime example of science fiction at its most terrifying – it’s a slow-burning, claustrophobic film filled with psychological dread that periodically erupts into tentacular, flame-filled warfare. This is no jump-scare-filled schlock movie, but a finely-crafted nightmare.

A seemingly ordinary sled dog runs into an American station in the Antarctic, pursued by a crazed screaming Norwegian with a gun, who is quickly shot dead in self-defense. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) venture to the Norwegian base, and find that someone has burned it down. Everyone is dead and burned, frozen or both… and they find the remains of a horribly malformed, inhuman creature.

Well, they find out what happened when the Norwegian dog is kenneled with the other sled dogs: it starts absorbing them into one grotesque tentacled mass. Only fire kills it. The Americans soon realize that it’s an alien organism from a nearby crash site, which can perfectly mimic other organisms – so perfectly that no one can be sure who is really human, and who is part of The Thing. Even worse, it could assimilate all life on Earth in a relative short time, if it ever got out of the frozen wasteland of Antarctica.

So, unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of paranoia and suspicion among the Americans, especially after Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) sabotages their vehicles and destroys their communications equipment. Deprived of sleep and not knowing who to trust, MacReady and the others must discover who is a Thing before it’s too late.

John Carpenter produced a number of outstanding classic films like “Halloween,” “The Fog,” “They Live,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Escape From New York,” and so on. But “The Thing” may be Carpenter’s finest hour – it’s one of those carefully-cultivated, intricately intelligent movies that has pretty much no flaws. The acting, the writing, the atmosphere, and the feeling of all-consuming, gnawing paranoia right to the very final seconds of the film.

Carpenter’s direction here is mostly a slow-burn, building up a tripwire tension that permeates every scene… until, without warning, flesh starts stretching, tentacles whip out, and strange fluids pour out. The nightmarishness of the whole claustrophobic experience is only heightened by the way the movie makes you feel for the characters. You feel the horror of being surrounded by people who might not even be human, of being too afraid to sleep, of being surrounded by a wasteland of snow and burned remains.

And a lot of the movie’s effectiveness comes from its special effects. These are some of the most convincing practical effects ever captured on film – they’re fleshy, dripping with fluid, twisting and gnarling into something bloated and grotesque. And yet, for all the giant grainy teeth, oozing fluids and spider-legs, the most horrifying moments of The Thing’s presence are when it looks just a little too much like something ordinary and living, such as the giant screaming snarling dog-Thing. There’s almost a sense of cathartic relief when the humans fry one of the Things, just because something so profoundly wrong and horrifying is now dead.

The acting is also absolutely top-notch here, with Russell taking center stage as MacReady. The character isn’t really a hero – he’s just a guy who flies helicopters, who finds himself in the unenviable position of saving the world by whatever means necessary. He may be less educated than many of the other people in the outpost, but he’s undeniably intelligent, cunning and resourceful. But Russell is bolstered by some excellent supporting actors, including Brimley, Dysart, Keith David, and… well, pretty much everyone. The dog isn’t a bad actor either – its unnatural silence and calm is an early clue to what it truly is.

It may not have gotten the love it deserved when it was first released, but “The Thing” has proven over time that it is a true horror/sci-fi classic. Absolutely masterful.