Be aware there are spoilers for The Endless.
This week, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead‘s The Endless rolls out on Blu-ray and digital, which means that folks nationwide are going to be unravelling the headtrip horrors of the film’s unnerving, mysterious Lovecraftian mythology and looking for some answers. Earlier this month, I published the first part of my conversation with the filmmaking duo, which spanned from the duo’s early ideas for expanding the universe they built in their first film, Resolution, to the experience of taking the finished version The Endless around the world. And now that the movie has hit more theaters, it seems like a good time to serve up the spoilery portion of the interview, which dives into what to make of the film’s mysterious mythology and ending.
If you need a refresher, The Endless follows Benson and Moorhead as Justin and Aaron (yes, they’re using their real names, but no, they’re no playing themselves), a pair of bickering brothers always at odds who return to the UFO death cult they escaped as kids in search of answers. Except when they get there, they don’t find a UFO death cult at all, but a happy and healthy, if admittedly weird and unsettling, commune of people living life on their own terms. They also find something more sinister lurking in the hillsides of the remote camp — an unseen, oppressive presence that communicates through voyeuristic photographs and video clips, trapping people in time-loop prisons where it manipulates and torments them into various horrific fates for its own amusement. A frontiersman trapped in a loop of mere seconds, a man who has to kill himself every few minutes to prevent a worse fate, and the local cult, who have it relatively easy by comparison — living out a decently long three-moon loop that ends with their “ascension,” aka being shredded into bloody bits. Yikes. At least they don’t have to worry about aging.
And of course, there’s the return of Mike (Peter Ciella) and Chris (Vinny Curran) from Resolution, who are trapped in the bitter week-long loop of forced sobriety and failing friendship detailed in the 2002 film. The unseen evil in The Endless is the same chilling cosmic threat we met in Resolution, and the films share more crossovers than you’d probably imagine on a first watch, so you’re looking for more answers on The Endless, a rewatch of Resolution is the perfect place to start. Or first watch if you caught The Endless first, which works just as well.
However, if you’re looking for an easy play-by-play explanation of what goes down in the film, you’re not going to get it from Benson and Moorhead, who insist everything you need to solve the puzzles of their unconventional cinematic universe can be found right there on screen. However, the duo was more than happy to dive into the ideation behind the film’s mythology and the mindset behind ending it the way they did, so check out the interview below for a discussion of the different ways their “monster” is revealed through the characters and settings in the film, the ideas that helped inspire the unseen menace, and why the ending is more about character payoff than answering specific questions.
I know you guys have said you have this whole mythology totally down from top to tail. Was that something that you had already achieved at the time of Resolution or did that come later?
JUSTIN BENSON: It’s definitely expanded.
AARON MOORHEAD: The rules didn’t change.
BENSON: But like with Resolution there were … In both of these movies, there have been massive documents of things that people never see. And it’s really cool because we’re pretty sure people feel these things in the movie. The things that are into that. But like in the case of Resolution, for example. The unseen antagonist of Resolution, which is the same unseen antagonist in The Endless, obviously. Except in Resolution, the point of view of the whole film is from the unseen antagonist. There was like a massive document that went into everything about that “monster” that went to our sound designer to help them design the sound of the whole film. So that existed during Resolution and there are things in that document that ended up more conspicuous in The Endless than expanded upon. That’s just like one example of one thing.
When it comes to how nailed down the mythology is… When the camera pulls back on that canyon and you see all those bubbles, the time prisons, would you be able to look at that shot and say exactly what’s happening in each one of them?
MOORHEAD: I can tell you how long those loops are, when they reset, and all of that. That exact area, we know it pretty well. And that’s desert, so there’s a whole bunch of poor animals. It’s probably something like that, but I wouldn’t say that we have an entire map of the world and who’s in it. But it wouldn’t be hard to theorize. We definitely have enough. So it would be pretty easy to take a good gander. And then, the little sequence that — the music trimmings for the montage that follows Justin and Aaron walking past the big totem and it’s in the sort of monolith carved monster looking thing.
BENSON: The rusty dragon sculpture.
MOORHEAD: And the rusty dragon sculpture. So those would all be individual loops that have developed their own sub-cultures and have their own interpretation of what this unseen antagonist is. Depending on how they saw it, the state of mind they’re in, and their own personalities, and all of that. And that these things they’ve created are artistic representations of how they see the antagonist. Whether they’re going specifically through the loop you see in the distance, because they do walk off, that we don’t know. And luckily, we only shot in 4K so you can’t really punch in. [Laughs]
BENSON: And what’s funny is … it’s weird how important that sequence was to us because in the movie we basically, the oldest loop that you ever see is what, 1800 something? Some kind of frontiersman like in a tent, but we have a non-existent Easter Island type subculture that developed its own kind of mythology around it. Clearly. And of course, Native Americans with the totem pole. But even the monolith to us — which is kind of the big image of the film anyways — to us. it’s supposed to scare the hell out of you when you realize that’s what that is. When you realize that, that’s the antagonist of the film as seen by people that are so ancient they’re gone in America.
In a similar vein, along with those monoliths I loved the ways we see this presence interpreted through the eyes of the characters in the film, like Lizzie’s art and Hal’s equation. What was your process of creating all these different understandings of this one being?
MOORHEAD: I mean, that’s something that did start with Resolution but it’s so small. It’s so small. It’s like literally there’s a journal running during the credits sequence of Resolution. It’s a bunch of monster sketches, and that would have been what the French researchers in Resolution were seeing it as. So that goes way back. I don’t even remember anymore what the inspiration for that was. Besides the fact that, unless you can get Giger, the guy who did Alien, unless you have a designer on that level to build a monster … We’re just trying to figure out ways that we can present it visually when we need to at least hint at something and not just show nothing, always. And in this case, we get to show it through sketches, and through sculptures, and things like that.
In the case of Spring, we showed a monster because the premise alluded to nature as being our designer. And since we don’t have our own Giger, we come up with these, hopefully interesting, clever ways to show an otherworldly being or “monster” and it won’t be really uneventful.
I mean if you wanted to pour a glass of wine, on a dark night and think about it. There’s this idea of every civilization has developed an idea of a deity and a God. And their interpretation of it has trickled down into our religions today. Or died out. But in the same way, their visualizations of it have looked so wildly different. And a lot of the time there’s the idea that … There’s two ideas. One is, what if it’s the same thing? What if they’re all the same thing? Of course, unified religion theory, which is kind of an idea that we play with. But we’re merging it with the idea of, what if wasn’t God? What if it was just a monster? Or what if people with porphyria were seen as vampires? You know, that kind of an idea where it’s like, “Oh, there’s nothing metaphysical about it.” Obviously, our movie’s metaphysical. But what if it was a natural phenomenon that people just tried to interpret as a god. And that’s a lot of what we’re talking about with this; they saw it as God and it’s actually just this thing.
BENSON: And as you saying that, I just remembered where it comes from. It comes from … This is a deep cut. There’s a guy named John Keel, who’s the guy who wrote The Mothman Prophecies. The book is very different from the movie. It’s not a fictional narrative. It’s sort of a journalist’s account of what happened in an area over a period of time. He wrote a whole collection of other books. The one that I’ve read is Our Haunted Planet and what it’s basically about is this concept of ultra-terrestrials.
I’m not saying it is an ultra-terrestrial in this movie, but the idea is that throughout human history whenever human beings saw something and interpreted it as being like, “Oh, I saw something. That was an angel from the bible.” Or, “That was a demon.” Or, “That was an extraterrestrial being.” “That was the Men in Black.” “That was the Mothman.” Whatever. That it’s actually always the same thing. In his case, he was arguing that it was this thing called an ultraterrestrial. That just basically, something that had been here among us, always manipulating the situation and everyone just seeing it differently depending on their culture. So it’s vaguely where the idea comes from. If you could imagine, there are so many species that we haven’t yet cataloged in the Amazon. Things like that. Imagine if there’s like an enormous blind spot that we just completely missed; one really big thing. Again, that’s not what’s in The Endless but it’s that idea.
I do have one very specific question. Are we meant to interpret at the end where we see the image of two cars coming into a collision, that it has anything to do with the car crash that put them there in the first place?
MOORHEAD: No. That’s an interesting one where we realized that was an unintentional thing. About 10% percent of people, they’ll kind of have that question of like, “Do they?”
When I watch Resolution and The Endless back to back, something I had not picked up the first time was, they seem almost opposite ending moments. Resolution ends on a feeling of helplessness and being trapped and The Endless is all about breaking free. Was that intentionally designed for those two endings to be on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum?
MOORHEAD: Oh, that’s funny. I’m going to give you a yes and no. I think after Spring, we got addicted to optimistic endings. I think we realized that we are just optimistic people and saying like, “You’re fucked no matter what” is just not our feeling about the way that life is, or at least the message that we want to put out into the world. And also, frankly, it more comes down to the construct of The Endless where, if you’re talking in really broad terms about the movie. If you’re talking about the fact that it says, “Break out of your cycle or be doomed to repeat history forever.” It seems like we should be showing what it looks like to break out of your cycle. And like, “Does that help you?” I don’t think it’s a moral as much as it’s an exploration of it. Because there are people that do enjoy it inside their cycle. I mean, the cult at the end. And you don’t even feel bad for them. A little bit, but it’s more melancholy. It’s like, “Oh. They kind of enjoy it there.” But I think that it would have been untruthful for ourselves if we’d ended it as dark as Resolution had ended.
BENSON: Yeah. It just seemed like we know, yes there is a very literal answer to the movie. And the answers in the film…It may take a few viewings, but everything’s very literal and all the evidence, if you want to call it that, is there. In terms of, where’s the movie ending in the sense of the supernatural, and otherworldly, and the sci-fi aspects, and all that.
But the thing that’s definite, that’s there, that was the most important to us, was just that you’d see that there was a transformation in the interpersonal relationship between these two brothers. And that you’d see that transformation in just a really understated gesture. And that the emotional satisfaction should come from that. I think anything else beyond that, we do things stylistically to kind of like poke the mystery part of people’s brains a little bit. One example is that it’s a hard cut going out. Things like that where just like you sit there and you go, “Oh, wait. There’s another piece of the puzzle to figure out.” To think about longer. It’s things like that. But there’s definitely one answer to the sci-fi part of it.
MOORHEAD: Actually going back to your questions, I just remembered when you said, “People who have viewed the movie multiple times.” There’s something that’s an interesting thing we’ve realizes. Our movies kind of exist in what people have called a Lynchian sort of universe where just things are a little off and all of that. I hadn’t seen almost any Lynch when that comparison started, but what’s interesting is, all of the answers to the movie are, I promise you, they’re in the movie. They are there. It’s not a dream logic situation. We’re not being deliberately obtuse. We just want to tell a mystery that’s got a lot of depth to it. And we just don’t want to lay it all out on the table but they’re in there. If you think about it long enough and hard enough. And you know, you might have to take a couple of, not leaps of logic but leaps of faith that like, “Okay. That is what they meant.” Something like that. But our movies are meant to be, I guess literal. That might be the word for it. They are meant to be telling a full story.
The Endless is now playing in theaters across the U.S. Check the official site for details.