Somewhere between Meet the Parents and your favorite apocalyptic film lies the potential for How It Ends, the 2018 thriller produced by Netflix during their recent rollout of original entertainment. The film is described as “ominous” by the streaming giant, which is hardly an understatement for this tense, quick-moving narrative.
We meet the protagonist, Will (Theo James), just in time to witness the joy of he and his fiance, Sam (Kat Graham), finding out they’ll be parents to a baby boy. Yet this warm, fuzzy feeling is doused by a cringe-worthy dinner with Will’s future-in-laws that reveals a nearly insurmountable gulf between Will and Sam’s father, Tom (Forest Whitaker), which results in Sam’s mother (Nicole Ari Parker) “kicking him out” before the end of the meal.
Fast-forward a day and Will is preparing to fly back to Seattle to be with Sam when an unexplainable geological phenomenon hits, knocking out their Facetime call and deeming the entire US (perhaps the world) powerless.
Although the mysteriousness of the disaster is arguably part of what makes the film so edgy, it’s hard to shake the constant question of just what has sent the world into such a tailspin. Rather than focusing–or even simply relaying–what the cast is up against as they trek across barren US highways, the movie begs us to focus on the impossible mission that Tom and Will embark on to drive across the country to find Sam, who’s alone in Seattle.
Along the way, the pair battle escaped convicts, panicked evacuees, wildfires, and more. The only reason the two men survive these incidents is thanks to Tom’s extensive knowledge gained during his decorated career as a Marine. However, when he fractures his ribs during a conflict on the highway, he never thinks to bandage himself or repair his wounds, which is a bit hard to believe for someone with enough skills to walk his future son-in-law through a makeshift needle thoracostomy halfway through the film.
Then there’s the case of Tom and Will’s companion, Ricki, a young Native American woman they pick up on their travels to help with car repairs in exchange for helping her get out West. During a speedy chase with a carful of looters who had stolen their gas, Ricki shoots out their tires causing the thieves to crash and die in flames. She subsequently “loses” it, convinced she killed the culprits, and disappears. No signs of where she went, if she survived or anything. She simply vanishes. We’re not told enough about Ricki to understand why this affected her so much, and although she makes several small comments along the way that allude to possible trauma in her past we never truly understand why she agrees to the trip in the first place.
Just before Tom succumbs to his injuries in the back of the car, he and Will share a brief moment of reconciliation that nicely patches up a conflict that was never truly explained. When Will eventually reaches Seattle and finds Sam, he must deliver the news that Tom did not survive the journey, which she doesn’t have much of an emotional response to considering she was so close to her father. In general, the few moments we have with Sam on screen lack any depth.
And then, during the last half hour of the film we are introduced to Jeremiah (Mark O’Brien), Sam’s neighbor who helped her survive the disaster. Jeremiah is obviously jealous of Will, but he’s also the only character who seems to care about discovering exactly what’s wrong with the Earth and why so many earthquakes are occurring (which is what the audience has been trying to figure out all along). Yet Will, sensing that something’s not right, becomes increasingly agitated by the “conspiracy theories” and claims not to care what’s happening or why (which is hardly practical).
One of the great strengths of the film is steering clear of cliches, which is done well when Will takes the initiative to shoot Jeremiah (rather than hesitating to defend himself as so many film characters do). His actions to get Sam away from the ensuing dust storm at the end show strong character development: we see that he’s learned from his journey and is a stronger, more astute man.
While the thrill of the chase is enough to keep your attention and the proposition is interesting, there are too many variables left open without resolution. The odd turn with Jeremiah feels like a forced attempt to create additional conflict before the movie ends. If How it Ends is a take on the finality of the world as we know it, it would be nice to at least know, How It Begins first.