Review: The Endless

Mind-bending and thought-provoking sci-fi, with the two writer-directors also taking the lead roles

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Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead made their filmmaking debut with the indie horror Resolution, and they revisit some of the same characters and the remote landscape here with this mind-bending and creepy science fiction movie. And the two writer-directors move from behind the camera to play the leads as well, even adopting their own first names for the central characters.

The Endless adds to a steadily growing pool of brain-stimulating sci-fi films, such as Netflix’s recent Annihilation, that aren’t afraid to pose lots of questions and which rely as much on well-defined characters as they do special effects.

The film opens with a chunk of exposition where we learn that the brothers abandoned a cult where they’d grown up and exposed the goings-on at the desert-bound camp to the media, portraying it as a “UFO death cult” where the men are all castrated and everyone is on course for a Jonestown-like mass suicide. Now the two brothers live out their mundane lives as professional cleaners, scrimping and saving to keep their old car running, while trying to adjust to life away from the carefully managed world of cult life.

When a mysterious tape arrives from one of the camp members, the pair are both relieved to find out their fellow cult friends are still alive, but disturbed to learn that something called the Ascension is approaching. Led mainly by the younger brother’s desire to face the past and lay it to rest, the pair deicide to return to the camp for a day and a night.

Once there, they discover that life remains pretty much unchanged. Indeed the camp’s residents seemed to have defied ageing and continue their gentle life around the campfire, making art, beer and handmade clothes pretty much as when the two men left. It’s so idyllic that younger brother Aaron persuades them to stay on for a few more days, entranced by what he feels is a simple way of life far away from the pressures of day to day existence in the real world. Older brother Justin is resistant however, wary of being sucked back into the cult, and when the bright desert sun sets on the camp, it becomes clear that there is something else lurking in the impenetrable darkness that surrounds them. Something is watching and waiting, and exerting a powerful and strange control over things.

To say too much more about what happens risks spoiling the gradual and carefully plotted descent into mind-bending madness. Suffice to say there’s a tug of war with an unseen force in the sky and a number of weird encounters with people who live in and around the camp. There is a smattering of horror-like jump moments, some great dark comedy set-pieces and lots of eerie goings-on that ratchet up the tension until a satisfying and fantastically over the top climax is delivered.

Benson and Moorhead play their respective roles with understated and naturalistic flair, which contrasts well with the increasingly bizarre events that unfold around them. And despite its philosophical themes concerning the nature of existence, addiction, control, loss and grief, the film also avoids taking itself too seriously, with the two leads channelling cult-survivor kookiness and naivety in the relaxed banter they share.

In a summer of the usual big blockbusters, this stands as a shining curiosity worthy of repeated viewings to unlock its secrets. Benson and Moorhead are already creating a stir beyond indie flick world and it surely won’t be long before we see their names attached some bigger budget movies. Hopefully, they will be able to take some of their clever and finely crafted storytelling with them.
The Endless opens in selected cinemas on 29 June and is on DVD and Blu-ray from 2 July

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