When it comes to sheer ambition, it’s hard not to admire the writer-director-stars of The Endless, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Despite a relatively low budget and an unknown cast, this duo doesn’t stop from creating a film with exciting concepts, large ideas, and almost making their own cinematic universe of sorts. On paper, The Endless is one of the most compelling films in recent memory that attempts to blend multiple genres in a twisty, unusual yarn. The problem with The Endless, however, is the ridiculous speechifying spouted by mediocre-to-bad actors that stop the movie in their tracks. Benson and Moorhead have made The Endless intriguing in theory, but sloppy and disappointing in its mediocre execution.
Benson and Moorhead play brothers Justin and Aaron, who almost a decade ago escaped what they call a “U.F.O. death cult.” The two have struggled with life since, barely staying afloat with their job cleaning houses. Justin claims that pulling them out of the cult saved both their lives from the inevitable “drinking of the Kool Aid” moment, while Aaron remembers the cult with rose-colored glasses. Aaron longs for the days community and actual happiness, so he convinces Justin to take him back for a day trip to their old commune, Camp Arcadia.
Aaron sees the return like coming back home, which is easy considering he doesn’t remember many of the more problematic aspects of Arcadia that his brother has told him about. Meanwhile, Justin treats the camp with an understandable condescension, mocking the more cultish activities the rituals they once wholeheartedly believed. As the single day trip goes on longer than expected, Justin starts to discover that Arcadia might be far crazier than he originally thought. As he delves deeper into the mysteries of the commune, Justin comes to understand the shocking reality and surprising secrets that makes Arcadia far more than meets the eye.
Without spoiling too much beyond that, The Endless ends up becoming part brother drama, part cult exploration, and part sci-fi genre examination, without fully succeeding at any of its individual parts. Much of this comes in The Endless’ unexpected sci-fi turn, which either asks too many questions that can’t be answered, or presents character after character espousing their own interpretations of what is really happening in wooden monologues. At one point, The Endless goes on a diversion into another one of Benson and Moorhead’s films, making this an abrupt pseudo-sequel that will mean nothing to those who aren’t already familiar with the duo’s filmography.
It’s hard not to see Benson and Moorhead as both the best and worst thing about The Endless. On one hand, its their potent ideas that makes The Endless worthwhile, but it’s also their clumsy script, unbelievable performances, and their ambitious goal to cram all of their ideas into one film that are the films’ biggest problems. Many of the characters introduced near the end don’t feel based in any reality, but its Benson and Moorhead’s ungraceful performances that make the whole film come off as false.
Benson and Moorhead try their best to tell a grounded take on commune living, while also going all-in on grandiose sci-fi trope. This difficult combination makes for a mishandling of tone, and a failure to find humanity in a film that begs for its audience to connect to its brotherly story, as well as its thoughts on free will and comfort. What Benson and Moorhead attempt to do with The Endless ends up becoming an impressive failure, a sign of the directing pair’s lofty aspirations, despite not quite yet having the skills to pull off their goals.