How It Ends was directed by David M. Rosenthal (Jacob’s Ladder, Falling Up), written by Brooks McLaren, and stars Theo James (Underworld: Blood Wars, Dual), Forest Whitaker (Black Panther, Finding Steve McQueen), Grace Dove (The Revenant, Monkey Beach), Nicole Ari Parker (Empire, Remember the Titans), and Kat Graham (Cut Throat City, All Eyez on Me). It follows a small group of survivors as they traverse an ending world in the hope of finding one man’s pregnant wife before the world gets worse.
The Plot: There’s some merit to the thread that How It Ends presents, having a cross-country adventure to find a loved one before a catastrophe is intrinsically captivating because that journey is something many people would take despite the risks. While it’s an easy plot to follow, the movie struggles with it, providing diversion after diversion instead of focusing on the clear potential of its characters’ venture, indulging in cliche more often than not. Will (James) isn’t having the best time dealing with people.
After flying to Chicago to meet with his pregnant girlfriend Samantha’s (Graham) parents, Paula (Parker) and Tom (Whitaker), Will doesn’t get the outcome he wanted; storming out of their presence with the intention to return to his girlfriend in Seattle. During a call with Samantha, whom the movie wisely steers clear of, for the time being, the power on the west coast goes out and chaos ensues. Going back to Will, the same chaos has erupted in Chicago. Now hoping to get back as fast as he can, he enlists the help of the reluctant Tom to get to Samantha before something really bad happens.
Running into various obstacles and people, including a temporary passenger in Ricki (Dove) who disrupts the journey and the movie with tonal shifts, average action beats, and middlingly presented moral dilemmas until the story comes to a screeching “conclusion” in which How It Ends refuses to elaborate on, well, how it ends.
The Characters: McLaren’s script offers character introductions just as effectively as it introduces the plot, which is to say that there’s a great setup for conflict and dramatic exchanges but that’s where the praise ends. Will is in a decent state as he’s making good money as a lawyer, looking at buying a house for his burgeoning family, and has plans to expand once he’s ready. However, he’s inexperienced at plenty of basics like firing a gun and holding his temper, both of which make him feel real enough to identify with.
Tom is the protective father figure made more so because of his military background who wants nothing but the best for his daughter, which essentially eliminates Will’s chances of obtaining his blessing for marriage, causing tension between the two. It’s an understandable conflict that occasionally gets explored between bouts of tone-deaf dialogue from Ricki, who makes a believable first impression, especially given the state in which the two arrive, but quickly becomes a headache due to consistently idiotic and convoluted decision making and relentless heckling of the people who are helping her get where she wants to go.
Samantha makes for an easily sympathetic goal too but doesn’t register as more than that. The core dynamic between Will and Tom is solid but gets tossed by the wayside in favour of action that doesn’t pulse, and when Whitaker isn’t present James loses an acting mate which cuts the character in half.
The Adventure: Rosenthal makes an interesting decision in his near ignorance of the apocalyptic event which starts (and ends… kind of) the journey. Occasional symptoms of the disaster are revealed as time goes on and the characters get closer to Washington but there’s never a finger pointed directly at the cause, which helps to raise intrigue as to just what obstacles the characters will have to overcome next an engaging question that alleviates How It Ends’ tendency to steer towards more well-trodden road movie beats.
Those well-trodden beats start popping up around How It End’s halfway mark and they don’t stop, with plenty of antagonistic characters stalling or stopping the quest for the most overplayed reasons such as not caring that the world is ending, wanting to use the female of the group for… reasons, or random crashes for the sake of an action set-piece. A lot less thought went into the middle of the movie than the beginning, but definitely more than the end, which is just a slap in the face for a nearly two-hour trip that it’s almost offensive. But between start and end lay some solid spectacles and a few genuinely human moments.
The Technics: For as needless as it is to say, I’ll point it out anyway: the script is the biggest fault of How It Ends. What should be a thoroughly compelling adventure interwoven with human drama is instead a half measure of each with some distracting action scenes and an annoying character that serves no purpose in the grand scheme.
Some scenes merely observing the end of the world are absorbing thanks to very good visual presentation and take some weight off of the overlong runtime that had multiple routes to travel to get to a presentable ending that should’ve served as the big “oomph” to end on. Pacing is another issue here, with the quiet moments holding more impact and the blips of outright action and action-adjacent cliches feeling like Rosenthal jingling keys in front of the audience to make sure they don’t think about the missed opportunities.
Half a movie resides in the runtime of one complete feature. Some good characters exist but don’t get tapped into. Some good adventurous sequences dare to be quiet, and others get loud out of desperation. The setup is much better than the payoff. How It Ends is fifty percent of a…