Review: How It Ends

Netflix’s new film, How It Ends (written by apparent newcomer Brooks McLaren and directed by David M. Rosenthal), is a tense survivalist narrative that can be summarized as a post-apocalyptic road trip. It’s fun, and if you already have a Netflix subscription, it’s worth the watch.

The film starts by introducing us to Will (Theo James) and Sam (Kat Graham), a young professional couple who are having a baby together. Shortly after learning it’s a boy, Will leaves Sam at their new home in Seattle to visit Sam’s parents in Chicago. This trip comes with an ulterior motive: he is asking Sam’s father, Tom (Forest Whitaker), for his blessing to marry her.

Tom is a former military man and severe. His wife, Paula (Nicole Ari Parker), attempts to mediate an increasingly tense dinner, but to no avail. The two men are at each other’s throats by the end of the night, and Paula asks Will to leave. The following morning, Sam calls Will, disappointed in the outcome of the evening–but while on the call, something strange happens in Seattle; there’s a mysterious rumbling, Sam notes that something’s wrong, and then the connection’s cut. Soon, all flights are canceled at the airport, and there’s a news report that they’ve lost power all along on the west coast after some sort of earthquake; almost immediately afterward, they lose power in Chicago, too. And not just power, but cellular and GPS networks all drop out.

Will returns to Tom and Paula. Paula goes to a safe place with family friends, while Will joins Tom in a cross-country journey to get to Sam. Fairly early into their adventure, after a major crisis, they take on one more party member: Indian reservation mechanic Ricki (Grace Dove), whom they hire on to make sure their car keeps running. From then on out, the movie becomes about the group’s efforts to get to the west coast as society continues to crumble around them.

In many ways, How It Ends reminded me of post-apocalyptic fiction like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the SowerParable, in particular, with its gradual societal collapse, and its prominent roadway forest fire scene, seems like an obvious source of inspiration for the film.

The actual cause of the catastrophe here is never explained. We are given some theories, some suggestions, but nothing really makes sense. We’re kept in the dark throughout, just as our characters, who are not in any position to even stumble across the bigger picture.

The movie’s strengths rest in its relationships. From the very first moments, I thought that Will and Sam had great chemistry, and I was invested in them, though to be frank, Kat Graham radiated a lot more personality even in her relatively few scenes, and I would’ve preferred a movie with Sam as the protagonist over Will. While Will is initially a fairly blank, bland personality, the archetypal fit young white male action protagonist, he grew on me over time–we’re shown that he’s intelligent, a skilled negotiator, and quick to adapt, while also being sensitive and sympathetic. Tom, in contrast, is such a belligerent hardass that it took longer for me to like him, but his survival skills and constant control over the chaos make him important to the success of the quest. And as time passes, he softens and becomes more humane to Will. By the end, they have a very touching relationship with Tom as almost a surrogate father.

My favorite character was Ricki. She thinks she’s tougher and more prepared for the outside world than she is; while she’s fleeing a hard life, she finds that the collapsing society all around them is far sicker and more grotesque than anything she anticipated. Her presence in the story is a trembling light, as she brings a naive positivity. Will becomes sort of a moral balance between the hard-nosed pragmatism of Tom and the too-trusting faith of Ricki. To survive, Will leans more and more in the direction of Tom, even as Tom is softened somewhat by Will; in the end, that shift means that Ricki eventually finds herself in a situation that she can no longer tolerate. Her outcome is a sad question mark.

My major complaint with the movie is that it ends far too abruptly. I’d be fine if we never really understood what was happening in the broader scheme of things, but we basically end in the middle of the action. We don’t know what will happen to the characters, in the next two weeks or even the next two minutes. It was jarring and felt more appropriate for a mid-season television episode’s finale than the conclusion of a film.

If “character-focused post-apocalyptic road trip thriller” sounds like something you can get behind, though, you should check it out. It’s not perfect, but it’s…a good ride.

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