What is there left to try for disaster movies? A once fun category that became consistently less interesting with the normalization of CGI in blockbuster filmmaking. If you’re going to have another shot at it, you better have a great backbone; or you risk irrelevance. At first sight, How it Ends seems to have what it takes for for the challenge. More specifically, a character-driven approach that takes elements from buddy road trip movies. A story where the destruction stays firmly in the background to give weight to the relationships and their evolution.
Things start promising enough. The tension and awkwardness between the two protagonists, a man named Will (Theo James) and his military veteran father in law Tom (Forrest Whitaker) is established in a fairly economic fashion. With just a few lines of dialog, we’re informed about the history these two men have between them, leading us to its logical conclusion. The first thirty minutes are easily the best part of the movie, since James and Whitaker effectively sell a sense of intimacy and conflict. Then stuff is destroyed, and that’s where things get shaky.
For some contrived reasons, Will is in Chicago, and Samantha: his fiancée and future mother of his child, is in Seattle when a series of unexplained city-wrecking disasters start taking place. In full dad movie fashion, Will and Tom embark on a journey to find Samantha. And you totally know where things will be going from there.
The film does a roughly competent job creating a world that feels dangerous, and it’s not just the disasters in and of themselves. The chaos drives people into madness, and the vast desolation of the land they’re in provokes despair and weariness. All of this is thanks to the direction, which maintains the chemistry between James and Whitaker watchable enough and compliments it with some handsome visuals.
I specify the direction because the writing is, to say the least, uninspired. Most of the events in the story take place because… they’re supposed to, I guess? How it Ends is not a movie that cares a lot about details like setups and payoffs. Random characters come in and out of nowhere and are basically treated as glorified plot devices. The script seems like it was structured for an NES video game, where the protagonists simply depart from point A, beat a lot of minions to get to point B and start all over again. And when that goes on for nearly two hours, there’s inevitably a point where everything starts to feel tiresome and aimless.
The potentially interesting character dynamics mentioned previously are left aside to prioritize trite survival movie tropes like “we need more supplies” or “we’re running out of time”. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say Will and Tom eventually form a camaraderie bond, which is also reduced to a box to tick in the list. Since there aren’t many scenes dedicated to anything resembling character development, it feels unearned, and the emotional resonance it’s supposed to deliver lands with a thud.
As for the acting, Theo James is in full “generic stoic white guy” mode, but to be fair, he’s very limited by the material. Forrest Whitaker adds some spark to the proceedings and manages to make his transitions between condescending jerk and stubborn ally look natural and engaging. Not a lot to say about the rest of the cast, since they’re either canon fodder, damsels in distress or dodgy “should they trust them or not?” types.
But here’s the problem that really sinks the enterprise. The film doesn’t end as much as it just stops. As it suddenly realized it was overstaying its welcome (or running out of budget). There’s no catharsis, no fulfilled arc, no actual conclusion. The world and the characters remain exactly the same as when they began, making you wonder “what was exactly the point of this?”
Throughout 2018, Netflix has unfortunately set itself as the place to go for disposable genre fare hoping be discovered by viewers who couldn’t catch tickets for the latest blockbuster in theaters. And How it Ends is more than willing to continue this trend by failing to add anything new or exciting to an exhausted formula.