5 most shocking sci-fi movie endings ever, ranked

Amy Adams in Arrival.
Paramount Pictures

There are few things more beautiful than when a movie manages to genuinely shock you. If you’re a movie buff, it’s likely that you’re on the lookout for potential twists or reveals that could totally upend you’re understanding of what you’re watching. Even the most experienced movie watchers still get surprised sometimes, though, and that’s especially common in great science fiction movies.

Because sci-fi movies often have to build their own worlds that have totally distinct rules, it’s possible for us to watch something without fully understanding what we’re seeing until the film’s final moments. That’s where the shocking ending comes in, and we’ve selected five of the very best for this list.

Warning: There are spoilers for each of the movies on this list. 

5. Arrival (2016)

Arrival Ending Scene

The best twist of recent years came in Arrival, which focuses on a linguist who has to decipher the language of an alien race that has landed on Earth. The movie, which seems to be taking place linearly, instead uses its final moments to reveal that the daughter it seemed like Amy Adams was mourning at the beginning of the film hadn’t actually been born yet.

She learns that she will have a daughter and lose her, and decides to have her anyway, understanding that the joy of knowing her will be worth the pain she ultimately feels when it’s all over (hopefully the daughter was also cool with it).

4. Soylent Green (1973)

Soylent Green Is People

Telling the story of a New York detective who is investigating a murder in the middle of a city that is slowly starving, Soylent Green‘s final moments likely aren’t a surprise to anyone who has heard the famous line “Soylent Green is people!” And really, that’s basically what the twist is here.

Soylent Green, a food that is ostensibly made from algae and is helping to stave off a hunger crisis, is in fact made from people. We have all become cannibals, and we don’t even know it. It’s a creepy, shocking reveal that feels like a real warning about how bleak humanity’s future might be.

3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is plenty chilling, but it has nothing on the ending of the 1978 version. After a group of friends are slowly picked off by the body snatchers, we see the film’s main character, Matthew, on his way to the health department.

We haven’t seen him be replaced, but when one of his friends who has managed to escape capture calls out to him, he emits the bloodcurdling screech that only the duplicates can make. It’s a scary, upsetting final moment that offers no hope, and actually suggests that things are even worse than we suspected.

2. Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes (5/5) Movie CLIP - Statue of Liberty (1968) HD

One of the most famous twist endings of all time, Planet of the Apes is a great science fiction movie that also turns into a warning about nuclear annihilation. When Taylor discovers that his ship did not crash on a foreign planet, but is in fact still on Earth in the distant future, he realizes that the apes emerged as the dominant race following a nuclear apocalypse.

The Statue of Liberty, which juts out of the side of a rock, is a chilling reveal that confirms what many had already suspected. It’s a bleak, terrifying ending made all the better by Charlton Heston’s despairing screams.

1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star Wars: Episode V - I am your Father

Perhaps the greatest reveal in movie history, The Empire Strikes Back caps off one of the best Star Wars movies in the best possible way. Luke learns that Vader, the evil entity that he has been fighting to destroy, is his father, leading to a crisis of identity that comes hot on the heels of him being totally destroyed in a fight.

Empire is a much darker movie than the original Star Wars, and it’s all the better for its willingness to lean into that tone. Its ending is not entirely without optimism, but it doesn’t put our heroes in a good place, and it leaves Luke without one of his hands and with the realization that he has more family out there than he once thought.