Having recently read/reviewed Harlan Ellison’s Blood’s a Rover and re-read (for the umpteenth time) Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, I must admit to being on a bit of a post-apocalyptic kick. So when I caught wind of the new Netflix original film How It Ends–whose trailer presented some stunning visuals, along with the always-exceptional Forest Whitaker in a starring role–I was naturally eager to check it out.
The movie centers on ex-marine Tom Sutherland (Whitaker), who is extremely disapproving of his daughter Sam’s boyfriend, attorney Will Younger. When a mysterious cataclysm strikes the West Coast of the U.S. and sends power outages and freak storms rippling across the country, Tom and Will set out from Chicago to find and rescue the incommunicado Sam in Seattle. How It Ends thus forms a variation on a road movie, tracing the evolving relationship between the unlikely pair of heroes attempting to trek cross-country. On this front, the film succeeds, thanks to the strong performances of Whitaker and Theo James as Will. But their arduous journey is ultimately too protracted: the plot bogs down with too many scenes of run-ins with Americans gone bad in the wake of national (perhaps not natural) catastrophe. Credibility is often strained along the way, such as when Tom manages to talk his way past a military roadblock merely by mentioning (and in no way verifying) that he served in the Marines.
Eventually we arrive at a blasted and ash-shrouded Seattle that makes for an absolutely haunting vista. After all that has preceded it, though, the climax feels rushed, introducing a new, under-developed, and soon-vanquished antagonist. Attempts to explain what triggered the apocalypse also prove unsatisfactory; the film has been preoccupied throughout with thrusting its characters into terrible predicaments, but appears at a loss to provide any sort of satisfying resolution. The final scene, in which a sudden, surging cloud of smoke (devoid of any real narrative logic beyond the writers’ need to generate another obstacle) chases the heroes as they speed away from the city, was groan-inducingly hokey. So while the film gets off to a promising start, the answer to How It Ends is, alas, not well.