For better or worse, AMC’s zombie-smashing megahit The Walking Dead has long become the most popular depiction of the post-apocalypse. What comes after the end of everything is a popular topic in the collective unconscious these days (can’t imagine why), and The Walking Dead is the entertainment entity that has had the longest time to explore it.
And that’s always been the problem with The Walking Dead, it loves to explore the emotional, social, and political ramifications of society’s collapse. And my God it has tons of time to do so. The show is so in love with what it means to survive the unsurviveable that entire seasons of the show pass with thousands of bullets fired, dozens of philosophical conversations had, and absolutely nothing learned.
At first glance, Netflix’s apocalyptic action drama, How It Ends, seems like a response to the overly ponderous zombie-filled rumination on The Nature of Man™ and What It All Means®. The apocalypse hits fast-forward in How It Ends. An unknown cataclysm on the West Coast turns off the lights and shuts down the internet and cell signals worldwide in about 15 minutes. Five minutes later the entire world is Mad Max: Fury Road with Cadillacs on I-90 instead of war rigs on an African desert path.
Hilariously implausible? Yes. A death sentence for the movie? Not necessarily. What is a death sentence, however, is how punishingly, infuriatingly boring the apocalypse turns out to be. Give How It Ends credit for not wasting our time and getting to the end of the world within a quarter-hour. Give it absolutely no credit for then somehow making the end of the world an absolute 120-minute chore to slog through.
Theo James stars as Will, a young man living in Seattle with his beautiful and perfect wife Sam (Kat Graham). We don’t know precisely what Will does for work, but he calls it “the firm” so undoubtedly he’s very important and cool. Will has business back in Chicago so after a work meeting, he intends to pay a visit to Sam’s father, Tom (Forest Whitaker) and mother Paula (Nicole Ari Parker) with the intent of asking Tom for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Tom is a doting father, former military man, and monstrous prick. He hates Will for having the audacity to unconditionally love his daughter for years, not making enough money (but the firm!), and moving to Seattle. It’s a rough dinner for Will and the following morning is even rougher because uh…the apocalypse suddenly happens.
For a film called How It Ends, How It Ends is completely unconcerned with the how of anything. Bad things just kind of start to happen and Tom, type-A butthead that he is, immediately knows that he must make the 2,000-mile drive to Seattle to rescue his Sam. Will decides to tag along because there’s paternal catharsis out in them there hills.
The majority of How It Ends takes place on Interstate 90, which despite being closed by the federal government for safety reasons, it still seems to be populated by thousands of generic redneck villainy, who look like they’ve been living off the land for 40 years. Will and Tom spend a lot of time alone in Tom’s Caddy, speeding along a mostly barren landscape and needlessly challenging each other’s manhood.
It’s hard to criticize James and Whitaker’s performances because there is really nothing to perform. Will and Tom are empty archetypes and not even interesting ones at that. Tom is the typical aging badass whose military training and fierce love of family will help him overcome any adversary. Just once, I’d like to see a post-apocalyptic drama in which the most powerful and useful character is a tiny nerd with a bad thyroid and PhD in modernist avant-garde literature of the 20th century.
Will alternates between helpless and killing machine as the plot dictates. James is charismatic enough but has the wrong physicality for the role. He’s far more imposing than any of the threats the two come across, but by plot necessity can’t quite seem to accomplish anything correctly until the third act when he suddenly must.
Also the scrunched timeframe and accelerated apocalypse goes from a strength to a weakness pretty quickly when it becomes clear just how accelerated the timeline is. The movie offers helpful “Day 2, Day 3, etc.” subtitles throughout the proceedings and each one is funnier than the last. Viewers are treated to events that wouldn’t appear out of place on The Walking Dead’s 100th episode only to then be greeted by the star text “Day 3.” It’s like that Will Ferrell era Saturday Night Live skit where the teleprompter goes out and society collapses.
Also for men who are singularly focused on finding the woman they love, Will and Tom sure make a lot of pit stops. They stop for gas and take on a barely willing mechanic, Ricki (Grace Dove). They stop at Will’s friends house and load up on what seems to be like nine years of supplies then stop again not five minutes later for more. Will and Tom’s only consistent characteristic, and only consistent motivation, is that they are in an action movie. Any outside emotion, motivation, or stimulus that would interfere with that is ignored. Even when they reach a level of understanding, it’s because they are in an action movie and required to do so, not because the two men have found any meaningful middle ground.
Visually, How It Ends mostly works. Director David M. Rosenthal (of the upcoming Jacob’s Ladder remake) knows that America on fire should be bitterly pretty. The landscapes across northern I-90 blend together but Tom and Will’s little Cadillac is placed well within them. The few action set pieces are clear but cliché and under characterization from those involved robs them from any poignancy or power.
How It Ends exists just to exist. It adds nothing to the post-apocalyptic genre. It has nothing to say and nothing to do. The beauty of science fiction is that no one really knows how human beings will respond when placed into such fantastical, impossible scenarios. How It Ends undercuts itself immediately by having its characters responding to it in as perfunctory and boring a way as possible every time. That overly ponderous “what does this all mean?” approach to the end of the world has long grown stale. Still, How It Ends would have been well served to ask itself a few big questions.