The Endless (2018)
Director: Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson
Two brothers (Moorhead & Benson) escaped a so-called UFO Death Cult 10 years ago, making a unhappy living as cleaners ever since. After a video from one of the cult members comes in the post the pair decide to return to get some closure, but in doing so unearth a far more bizarre story and attempt to unravel the truth surrounding the camp.
Before diving into the newest independent sci-fi venture by the pair of Moorhead and Benson, it does need to be mentioned that this does mention some spoilers. A film such as this is difficult to discuss without talking about some of the exact elements that make it a successful and enjoyable two hours. However, a brief summary will be added at the end that won’t contain any spoilers if you need any more convincing that this is worth a watch.
Following their similarly contained sci-fi exploration of relationships Spring (2015), Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson return with The Endless. Like much of their previous work, Benson wrote the screenplay solo but shares the directorial role with Moorhead, each taking a position as one of the brothers simply named Aaron and Justin. Interestingly, their feature debut Resolution (2012) acts almost as a prequel to The Endless, but you don’t require it to follow any of the events of this later work. Instead, the leads from Resolution appear as much more minor characters and add another layer to an already fascinating unfolding story.
As mentioned, it explores relationships as a subdued sci-fi. Ever since leaving the cult, Aaron has had fond memories of a friendly tight knit community, a better life than they have now. Justin, the more mature older brother who took them from the commune originally remembers the dangers, and after the tape of one of the members speaking of an ‘ascension’ and their excitement for the event. After some brief discussion, Aaron convinces Justin to go back – just for one night – to settle any differences they are having about the camp. After arriving, it does seem like Justin is too harsh – they’re friendly and welcoming, although both brothers do say they are slightly ‘culty’.
For a story that delves into much stranger roots than even a modern-day cult, it always feels grounded by the two leads. They add level of realism that could otherwise be missing in a fairly eclectic film that surrounds them, and both clearly feel incredibly comfortable with each other really cementing their story as brothers. This isn’t a takeaway from the rest of the cast though, the overly friendly camp faux-leader Hal (Tate Ellington) does plenty with the time he’s on screen, making it believable that someone would be drawn in without suspicion.
Delving into a far more spoiler-laden area, you could be fooled into believing Justins assumption that the events surrounding the camp fall onto Hal, and although he is involved, this expectation is dissolved as we find out he and his camp members are merely wrapped up in a much bigger and more malicious game of sorts. It is hinted throughout, Justins throwaway comments about those at the camp appearing younger than they are a much more subtle foreshadowing than original thought. Bensons screenplay really starts to flourish in these stages of the film, starting to bend our notions of reality in a very intriguing way. As a comparison, it would be like following one of the civilians of The Matrix (1999) as they wake from the simulation, but without the power and knowledge of Neo, and have to just make do with the fact that their reality has been severely altered.
The themes explored might not be as complex as those in The Matrix but they certainly don’t hold back. The circular nature of the narrative is constrained very well, repressing the right amount of information till it is perfectly relevant. Even as the credits roll and the ideas of karma, discussions of where we belong, what we call home and notions to how insignificant we really are, become lingering thoughts and that even after all the confusing unnatural events occur, we are all really just equals, and that those that matter are the ones that love us.
It would be a huge miss to not mention the many visual elements that Moorhead and Benson employ, taking this well written low budget indie piece too much higher heights. From the start circles litter the screen, obvious and subtle both to really instill the notion of circular in the mind of the audience. As the story progresses, this becomes very apparent but adding this is a well delivered visual cue to the forth coming events, ranging from frustration and resentment in the camp to more horrifying patterns far from escape. The unease developing into futility at the situation does create an unnerving tone throughout, and the delve into unravelling the truth really flips what we and the brothers know to be our reality. Another element of film craft is used well here also, the saturation of colours shows a world that we know but don’t recognise as our own.
The Endless is best enjoyed by experiencing first hand, exploring the ideas for yourself and having the ideas swirl around for days after.
However well constructed, it’s still not quite perfect. There are two parts in which you need to let slide to appreciate all the other merits fully, and the first is the sequences leading to the brothers reaching the camp. Although Moorhead and Benson are charming and convincing in their relationship with one another, it does feel like a dump of exposition to get to the better part of the story. It’s not particularly smooth, but luckily doesn’t last long. The other element is the CGI, which has it’s moments of working really well within the low-budget, but is sadly mixed in with pretty ropey and unconvincing effects. For some, this might be the breaking point in a time which fantastic effects from high budget blockbusters is taken for granted, but fortunately the CGI doesn’t take a front seat here and is likely something that most people can set aside.
To discuss all of the pieces that create a wonderfully woven puzzle would be doing the film a disservice. The Endless is best enjoyed by experiencing first hand, exploring the ideas for yourself and having the ideas swirl around for days after. If one thing is clear from their most recent feature, its that Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are destined for a very successful career, and if any of their last films are to go by, one that will keep people guessing for some time.