How It Ends tries to balance drama and thrills with a sci-fi premise, but ultimately fails to deliver in this bland but beautiful apocalypse film.
Netflix has made great strides in recent years to increase their output of original movies, even attempting to break into the blockbuster realm with 2017's Bright. The streaming service made headlines earlier this year with their high-profile acquisition of The Cloverfield Paradox. However, Netflix's original movies tend to be hit or miss in terms of critical and audience reception, with both Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox proving to be divisive. To be sure, Netflix has earned critical praise for films like Mudbound and Set It Up, but some have criticized the streamer of aiming for quantity over quality with its originals. As a result, many of Netflix's originals fly under the radar, and the latest release may do just that. How It Ends tries to balance drama and thrills with a sci-fi premise, but ultimately fails to deliver in this bland but beautiful apocalypse film.
How It Ends follows Will (Theo James), a lawyer visiting his girlfriend Sam's (Kat Graham) parents - Tom (Forest Whitaker) and Paula (Nicole Ari Parker) - in Chicago in order to get their blessing to marry their daughter. However, the dinner doesn't go well because of the friction between Tom and Will. But when Sam calls Will the next morning to discuss it, something goes wrong and their call is disconnected. Will is unable to fly home from Chicago to Seattle due to widespread power outages and he can't get in touch with Sam as communications seem to be down as well. So, Will returns to Tom and Paula, and sets out with Tom to make their way to Seattle to find Sam.
Along the way, Will and Tom learn a bit more about what's going on, that there's been some kind of seismic event off the west coast of the United States, as they see how the mass power outages and lack of cell service have affected communities along their route. As Will and Tom progress toward Seattle, their journey becomes more perilous, encountering environmental and human dangers. The pair meet up with a number of other refugees along the way, including the young mechanic Ricki (Grace Dove). But ultimately Will and Tom need to overcome their own issues and form a united front if they're going to get to Seattle and save Sam before the world completely descends into chaos.
Written by Brooks McLaren, How It Ends was developed from his 2010 Black List script that garnered attention from the Sierra/Affinity production company in 2011. However, the project didn't gain momentum until director David M. Rosenthal came aboard in 2015, and the film's worldwide distribution rights were acquired by Netflix in early 2017. Based on the premise of How It Ends, it's easy to see how McLaren's script gained attention since it puts a new twist on a classic story: a young man must prove his worth to his girlfriend's father in order to gain the man's blessing. However, in How It Ends, that dynamic is set against the backdrop of an apocalyptic nightmare scenario and the uncertainty that the woman they both love is still alive.
How It Ends had the potential to be entirely about this dynamic, forcing Tom and Will to confront the source of their conflict and how it may be exacerbated by the societal expectations placed on them to protect and provide for Sam in the ways they see fit. Undoubtedly, the apocalyptic setting of How It Ends allows the film to strip the characters down to their core, and it could have provided for some compelling drama if the movie had taken the opportunity to really dive deep into what makes Will and Tom tick. Instead, the trajectory of their characters' relationship is rote, following a familiar narrative - albeit, in an unfamiliar setting - leading to a predictable end without challenging or probing any deeper into how men in this particular dynamic interact with each other. For their parts, Whitaker and James offer compelling enough performances, though they don't quite elevate the characters enough to make up for their one-note nature.
It would make sense if the character ruminations were sacrificed for the sake of sci-fi action-adventure, since that can often be the case in such films, but How It Ends doesn't offer much in the way of apocalyptic action. It's clear How It Ends aims to be a quiet character drama that just so happens to be set in a apocalypse, with tiny tidbits of information about what's going on sprinkled through the movie more as set dressing than actual world-building. How It Ends only uses its apocalyptic setting to enhance the human drama of the film outside of Will and Tom's dynamic, but that human drama essentially boils down to "look at what wild things humans will do to survive" without interrogating why - neither on the individual level nor on a larger scale. As such, the interpersonal drama is trite, while the action only helps the story limp forward toward its conclusion.
Where How It Ends does excel, though, is in the beautiful imagery of its apocalyptic setting. Cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg takes advantage of the various types of beauty that can be found in the western United States, creating truly striking visuals that offer rich depth to the film. Further, the environmental dangers Will and Tom face throughout their journey also offer a chance for unique settings in which the drama and action take place. The cinematography isn't enough to sustain the film on its own, but it does provide for more interesting visuals that help to elevate certain scenes in How It Ends.
Ultimately, How It Ends tries to do too much. It tries to be a compelling character drama about two men who must overcome their differences to save the woman they love. It tries to be an apocalyptic mystery, as the characters attempt to unravel what really happened. It tries to take a look at what becomes of humanity when the structures of society breaks down. Since it tries to be all these kinds of films, How It Ends doesn't do justice to any of its themes, failing to balance the drama and action with the movie's interesting science fiction premise. It's neither another foray into blockbuster fare for Netflix, nor an Oscar campaign-worthy drama. Instead, it falls somewhere in between, which may doom How It Ends to being another Netflix original that flies under the radar or is quickly forgotten. Unfortunately, that may be for the best.
How It Ends is now available to stream on Netflix.
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