“How it Ends” is “Zombieland” with the sobriety of “The Stand” or “The Road,” a post apocalyptic cross-country thriller that has the good sense to put its antagonistic protagonists on the road with a minimum of fuss, and a lot of unanswered questions.
It’s another tale of how quickly civilization breaks down. Men and women and people’s sense of humanity and compassion are tested, as is a Cadillac CTS, as a mismatched young lawyer (Theo James) and his hardcase prospective father-in-law (Forest Whitaker) dash across the American wasteland, from Chicago to Seattle.
A couple of quick scenes establish that Sam (Kat Graham) is pregnant, forcing her beau Will to fly to Chicago to ask for her hand from retired Marine and man of means, Tom.
That awkward dinner goes badly, almost amusingly so. But Will can’t even get back on a plane back to his love before the static hits, “Will, something’s wrong,” power failures from west to east and it all starts to break down. Will wants to wait it out. Tom? He’s not hearing it.
“Let’s look at what we know. There was an event…This moment is not about waiting for the power to come back on. The only thing we can control is what we decide to do.”
Father and fiance pile into Tom’s Caddy for a mad dash through a largely vacated-militarized America with no sign of “the enemy,” where gas is lifeblood that the thuggishly inclined will kill you for.
The fires of North Dakota, the escaped convicts of Minnesota and the redneck survivalists of Montana must be outrun or bested. A Native American mechanic (Grace Dove) who will do anything to escape “The Rez” tags along.
And still there are no answers, just “End Times” sermons and pleas for help via ham radio because cell phones and the media have gone silent, crashed Army trains and transport planes, F22 flybys and birds flocking in that eerie, horror movie style.
“Ever seen clouds like that before? What the f— is going on?”
Along the way, the young lawyer, whose skill set doesn’t match the circumstances, has to measure up to the the man of action and experience who isn’t as young as he used to be.
Not much is made of this inherent conflict, as Brooks McLaren’s screenplay is content to plow through the conventions of End of the World tales. He’s been charged with re-booting the “Rambo” franchise, so don’t expect much here.
No compassionate deed goes unpunished, no relationship can find its footing before it is ended (abruptly, usually).
We’re allowed just enough proof that there are no decent people left, that “There’s a LOT to be afraid of, out there,” that the NRA’s Armageddon wet dreams have come to pass, between brief confirmations that there is humanity in some corners of the human race.
James always makes a more sturdy than inspiring leading man, but the Great and Oscar winning Whitaker usually has a little more to play than this. Only Dove, playing a mistrusting young woman escaping a limited life for a far riskier one, makes a lasting impression.
The simplest effects — empty streets, or those jammed with the panic-stricken — pay off. The “big one” in the third act is an afterthought.
And “How It Ends” does precious little to add empathy to a quest where it is a given, urgency to a journey that takes (as indeed it would, under these conditions) forever. The sidetracks aren’t really what slows it down, but the endless expanses of road and the need to park an incident into this time of day, that twilight passage tend to slow “How It Ends” down.
Like a lot of made-for-Netflix movies, trimming to build pace, strengthen narrative drive and amp up suspense would be a blessing.
Through it all, “Single Shot” director David M. Rosenthal maintains the mystery. Paranoid gossip is all anybody has, and precious little of that. Until even this saving grace is abandoned for the third act.
“How It Ends” answers its own question, then. The film version of “the end” just peters out.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence
Cast: Theo James, Forest Whitaker, Kat Graham, Nicole Ari Parker, Kerry Bishé
Credits: Directed by David M. Rosenthal, script by Brooks McLaren. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:53