I’ve never written a dual movie review before, but I’ve also never reviewed a sequel quite like The Endless before. It’s possible that someone stumbling into the picture uninitiated to its 2012 predecessor, Resolution, will leave it with just as many questions as the fully prepared. A low-key sci-fi freak-out that attempts big ideas through limited means, The Endless deliberately raises questions it has no intention to answer, so all audiences are going to leave the picture perplexed. Familiarity with Resolution is still a prerequisite for the full perplexing experience, though. Although hardly anyone saw Resolution in its original run and The Endless makes little mention of it in its promotional material, the 2018 update from writers/directors/stars Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead is very much a direct, continuity-detailed sequel that builds off the first film’s themes & conceit. Their budget for special effects spectacle may have jumped slightly in the half-decade between the two pictures, but the films’ shared story & sci-fi world-building are entirely of a piece, to the point where they are more inseparable than even the average superhero follow-up with “2” in its title.
Resolution is an extraordinary tale of two very ordinary bros who trespass onto protected Native American property and find themselves victims of an invisible, supernatural menace. One bro is a raving lunatic who spends his days smoking crack on a dirty mattress and firing a pistol into the woods. The other is a concerned friend who handcuffs him out of arms’ reach of the aforementioned drugs & firearms in an effort to save his life by sobering him up. While waiting for the cocaine to leave the more troubled bro’s body, the pair of foul-mouthed galoots begin to experience increasing exposure to unexplainable phenomena. Because the film was cheaply made, its introduction of sci-fi elements to its small-cast drama is mostly constructed with words instead of imagery. Conspiracy theories about government coverups of space alien contact, alternate dimensions, ghosts, “UFO death cults,” and physical confrontations with Hell are peppered throughout the dialogue to prepare the audience for the supernatural menace to come. It turns out that menace is the audience itself too, as the movie gradually becomes a sci-fi take on Cabin the Woods’s examination of consumer complicity in genre film violence. As the two bros are inundated with mysterious recordings on photographs, vinyl records, strips of film, VHS cassettes, and emailed digi-videos, Resolution becomes a story about stories, where an off-screen menace (presumably including the audience) requires a violent end to their narrative to be satiated by the experience. That’s lofty thematic ground for a film that looks like it was pieced together over a few bro-buds’ weekend hangouts.
The Endless drops Resolution’s Native American abuse themes to focus on the “UFO death cults” that lurked at the first movie’s fringes. Two brothers, seemingly unconnected to the bros from the first film, foolishly decide to return to a cultist compound where they were raised to challenge what they’ve been told about their past by their state-sanctioned deprogramming therapists. There, they find unexplainable “natural” phenomena within their old terrain, anomalies they had mentally dismissed as faulty childhood memories. Most significantly, the members of the cult have not seemed to age a day in the decades since they first left, which is indicative of the cycles of time that loop on the mysterious, paranormal landscape where both films take place. The Endless drops Resolution’s fixation on the power of myth & storytelling to instead explore themes of self-destructive ruts, where patterns of unhealthy behavior repeat in perpetuity for anyone who fixates on the past. The movie directly connects with its predecessor’s narrative – first in the form of mysterious, Caché-like recordings and then in a more direct, unsubtle way that combines the two film’s themes of linear storytelling & endless time loops in an oddly satisfying cohesion, even if a perplexing one. Once again, the supposed threat of the “UFO death cult” is a narrative misdirection, much like the expected Native American curse of Resolution. The real menace at work in The Endless is more an existential, unknowable curse born of its own existence & search for a purpose. It’s trippy stuff.
In all honesty, these are two movies I respect for their ambition more than I enjoy them as entertainment. I had high hopes for this double feature after first being exposed to Benson & Moorhead in the Lovecraftian romance horror Spring, which remains their greatest achievement to date. Spring matched the duo’s obvious, admirable interest in reaching beyond the typical bounds of low-budget filmmaking for grander ideas & scope with something both Resolution & The Endless were missing: genuine heart. I like to think of this difference as being akin to the jump Shane Carruth made between his films Primer & Upstream Color, which were galaxies apart in terms of emotional impact, even if the scope of their conceptual ideas were evenly matched. In these pictures from Benson & Moorhead, there’s a macho bravado that keeps genuine emotion at a distance. Spring also had an ordinary-bro protagonist, but he was one made vulnerable by a horrific, supernatural romance beyond this control. The macho brutes who command the runtimes of this double feature are much more difficult to care about, despite the movies’ insistence that they’re relatable, everyday dudes. When we’re listening to the bros of Resolution tease each other about the hideous “hogs” they hooked up with in their more youthful days or when they “comically” deny outsiders’ assumptions that they’re a romantic couple with a grossed-out fervor, it feels as if the movie is asking us to laugh along with them instead of finding them grotesque. The brothers of The Endless (played by Benson & Moorhead themselves) don’t fare much better, showing little human vulnerability in their base desires to hook up with beautiful women and escape the clutches of an invisible, supernatural menace. Essentially, these two movies assume a certain macho POV from their audience that can be a huge turn-off when it misses the mark.
Thankfully, the high-concept sci-fi crises of Resolution & The Endless don’t require much emotional involvement to be interesting on their own. Likewise, both films are admirable as examples of small-scale filmmaking pulled off with huge ambition in craft. Together, their shared runtime is somewhat demanding for a pair of movies with no emotional hook in their protagonists’ confrontation with the unknown. They do manage to make up for that shortcoming, though, mostly by provoking the audience to interrogate their own existence, purpose, and participation in this creation & sharing of myths. Like Spring, this is a pair of films that deserves to be seen by a larger cross-section of people than who will ever give it a chance, if not only for the reminder of how few resources you need to tackle something bigger than yourself and your craft. They’re just lacking Spring’s emotional core.