Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s mind-unspooling sci-fi thriller The Endless is one of those strange films that feels lightweight while flirting with cosmic ideas. The writer-directors play brothers, named, of course, Justin and Aaron, who escaped a UFO cult as teenagers. In adulthood, Justin is domineering and overprotective. But when the men receive a concerning videotape from the true believers at Camp Arcadia, Aaron demands that they drive back into the wild to find out what happened, and Justin reluctantly agrees.
Surprisingly, they’re welcomed by pleasant sights: old friends who apparently haven’t aged, including the benevolent de facto leader, Hal, and the flirtatious Anna, plus a host of cheerful hippies brewing beers and hanging out around the campfire. But as their visit stretches on, hints multiply that reality at the camp isn’t what it appears to be. A bullet hits something invisible in midair; a baseball is thrown high and disappears; a Polaroid flutters from the sky in the middle of nowhere. And the brothers are forced to contend with some old mysteries and falsehoods while an unseen presence creepily betrays itself.
The tone of The Endless skids from time to time, as Benson and Moorehead’s broad banter makes it hard to take their sibling conflict too seriously. At times, they seem to be parodying the relationship, and Benson is too genial to put much oomph behind his bullying behavior. These imperfections render the film less than completely immersive. But visually, The Endless succeeds with delicious, slightly Gothic weirdness, from psychedelic tweaks of filmic time to uncanny celestial phenomena to fun tricks with mirroring and repetition.
Better still, the secret behind Camp Arcadia is not a “surreal” cop-out but a genuinely freaky sci-fi concept. It may be a sly reflection of the nature of film, a metaphor for trauma, or just a cool idea. Not that it answers every question. I’m still trying to decide whether a telltale detail at the beginning makes the whole story far more disturbing, or whether I’m just searching for something that will tie the film’s ingenuity in with its inconsistency. The Endless invites you to puzzle over it or just enjoy its strange surfaces without losing too much sleep. For a pair of directors with Lovecraftian sensibilities, that’s pretty friendly.