Movie Review: Post-Apocalyptic Drama ‘How It Ends’ Turns Plodding
In the wake of an apocalyptic event that shuts down all electricity, cellular coverage, and apparently even word-of-mouth communication, a father and his future son-in-law make the journey from Chicago to Seattle to locate his daughter in the new thriller How it Ends, now streaming on Netflix.
But just how does it end? Slickly-produced, well-acted, and initially compelling, How It Ends turns plodding and frustratingly vague the further it moves across the country, as we slowly realize this familiar and relatively uneventful journey through the Northwest wasteland won’t be giving us many answers.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the ride. How It Ends is competently assembled by director David M. Rosenthal (who also made the underrated A Single Shot) from a screenplay by debut writer Brooks McLaren, and features a riveting performance by Forest Whitaker as Tom Sutherland, a military veteran who leaves his wife (Nicole Ari Parker) behind to try and reach their adult daughter across the country when all communications go down.
For Tom, that also means bringing along Will Younger (Theo James), who just happened to be in town to ask for dad’s approval to marry his daughter Sam (Kat Graham) before a minor confrontation left them on the outs.
That’s the captivating premise behind How It Ends, which gets some mileage out of dropping us into the midst of the potential apocalypse without giving us much of a clue as to what’s going on. Electricity is out, phone lines and radios are down, military planes are flying through downtown Chicago, and nobody seems to have any idea what’s really happening.
Like Tom and Will, we only know that 2,000 miles separate them from Sam, and there’s no other way to contact her but make a perilous cross-country drive that will eat up a good 90 minutes of screentime.
Unfortunately, that’s really all we ever learn about what has transpired. Within hours of the incident, military checkpoints have blocked off travel on main highways, armed militias have popped up to keep traffic out of their towns, and groups of scavengers run each other off the road to gain supplies.
Tom and Will also encounter some friendly faces, like Native American mechanic Ricki (Grace Dove), who joins up with them for a price. But they never think to ask those militias or military men or group of people gathered around the radio: “Hey, you guys know what’s going on?”
Despite some brief confrontations with armed gunmen looking to take out Tom and Will for whatever reason, How It Ends eschews the compelling post-apocalyptic premise for more conventional road movie tropes, with the curmudgeonly father and his future son-in-law overcoming their differences to form a bond.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Will finally asks someone at the 100-minute mark. The response, of course: “We have no idea.”
How It Ends doesn’t have to spell things out for us, and in fact maintains some interest the longer it hides its mystery. But even just a hint of speculation would have been nice.
Or anything else to keep us engaged: after a compelling first act, the lengthy road movie midsection is surprisingly uneventful, with few significant developments to pad out the 2,000-mile journey.
When How It Ends finally does reach its destination, however, it picks up steam through visual composition alone. After journeying through nondescript northwest territory for much of the running time (areas in and around Winnipeg filled in for US locales), the film drops us in an stunning ash-covered version of Seattle that truly inspires awe.
How It Ends is a lot less fun than the recent and very similarly-themed The Domestics, which paved the road from post-apocalyptic Minneapolis to Wisconsin with violent comic book gangs, but it’s also a far more thoughtful production. If you can stick through the film’s plodding road movie narrative, you might find a lot to like here, including a genuinely appealing turn by Whitaker as the vigilant father.