The Endless opens with a Lovecraft quote teasing us for our “fear of the unknown.” It’s a clever prelude for a bumbling, overly ambitious sci-fi film that keeps its viewers in the dark for so long, leaving many of its questions unanswered and its leads critically opaque. If, at any point, you find yourself nit-picking its bizarre plot twists or character choices, don’t worry—that’s just your fear of the unknown talking. By the end, you’ll wish the whole film had remained unknown.
The intriguing set-up deserves better follow-through. Justin and Aaron (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who also directed) are twenty-something brothers who escaped from a “UFO death cult” a decade earlier. After struggling to find purpose in the real world, Aaron convinces Justin to go back to the commune, known as Camp Arcadia, for the day to catch up with their old friends and remember what it was like to feel part of something.
There are some wrinkles. Aaron, the younger brother, doesn’t remember any of the more troubling details—like, say, the ritual castration that all men at the commune are said to endure—and is partially convinced they would be better off there. Justin just wants to support his brother. The film strikes a grounded tone during these early scenes. When the brothers arrive at the Camp only to find a creepy smiling dude at the front gate, Justin mutters, “Nothing cult-y about that.”But the human element gets cast aside as the film leans hard into its supernatural gimmickry and dorm-room philosophy. The camp seems to be home to an endless amount of bizarre phenomena. Some of it can be explained away, like the community game called only “the challenge” in which each resident tugs at a rope that seems to emanate from the sky; Justin takes pleasure in debunking their bullshit, snickering that the rope is actually held by a big strong guy on a ladder.
But what about the woman who is staying at the camp, but not a full-fledged member, while looking for her missing husband? What about the lake monster? Or the hut where a gaunt, miserable man seems caught in a time loop, killing himself every five seconds?
Credit where credit’s due: There are some creative ideas in The Endless and images that have haunted my imagination far longer than I expected them to. But they are overshadowed by the more amateurish elements, namely the screenplay, which touches on some deep themes—brotherhood and the downsides of free will—but becomes so enamored of its intellect that it loses its emotional drive. Similarly, the dialogue is painfully stilted. “We never anticipate the ways we’ll isolate ourselves from the ones we care about,” says one character to a guy he literally just met. Literally nobody speaks this way, although I’m sure it looked great on the page.
Making things worse is the acting, particularly that of Benson and Moorhead. In the early scenes, their characters are justifiably light on personality—spending your formative years in a cult might do that to a person—but when the paranormal phenomena start occurring, their understated reactions reveal nothing, and all we are left with is a pair of boring white dudes camping out in Southern California. It’s not really endless. It only feels that way.
The Endless opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market.