Spoiler alert: The following post contains spoilers regarding the ending of Netflix's How It Ends. Although, truly, this movie cannot be spoiled.
Netflix's How It Ends has, ironically, a confusing ending. Will (Theo James) and his pregnant fiancé Sam (Kat Graham) hop in their car, a four-wheel Jeep stolen from another family, and drive into the sunset. It's like Thelma & Louise in reverse: Instead of driving off a cliff, they're skidding away from an exploding city. Their future is uncertain. The explosion in the city is uncertain. Sam's pregnancy, a major plot point for at least 15 minutes of the movie, is uncertain. In fact, their whole relationship is uncertain, given that a few minutes prior, another character insinuated that he and Sam had slept together. How It Ends is an end-of-the-world movie without an actual, narrative ending.
This would be okay if the movie didn't keep its cards smothered to its chest. How It Ends is exceedingly vague, from the moment it opens on Sam and Will's sonogram. It survives on an interesting premise — basically a latte and a prayer. The movie, written by Brooks McClaren and directed by David M. Rosenthal, follows Will and his father-in-law Tom (Forest Whittaker) as they travel across the country in the middle of imploding chaos. (The script landed on the Black List, a curated list of Hollywood's best unproduced screenplays, in 2010.) I wish I could get specific about the chaos, but the movie won't allow it. The first sign of danger occurs when Sam is on the phone with Will. He hears explosions and Sam, away in Seattle, says, "Something's happening." Moments later, the power goes out across the country. Will's flight home to Seattle is cancelled. Will has no choice but to join his surly father-in-law in a cross-country journey to Seattle.
At no point during their journey do Will and Tom find out what's happening in the world. At one point, there's a massive thunderstorm. Sheriffs and state troopers police the borders of towns and states, trying to deter interstate travel. (Will and Tom, with the help of that shotgun, mostly circumvent these checkpoints.) The internet is out; radio waves aren't working. One character in a small town points out that there are over 2,000 satellites in space — how did all of them go out at once? All of it is waving in the general direction of some amorphous apocalypse. There are swarms of pigeons flying in formation and a suggestion of global climate disaster á la 28 Days Later. Some things seem biblical, like a character named Jeremiah (Mark O'Brien) who warns that the disasters might be an act of war.
"I'm a software engineer," he tells Will. "I've seen tons of war game simulations, including this exact scenario." These events are designed, he explains, to eradicate rational behaviour and incite war. Thus: This is war! Or is it a climate disaster? Or is this just a road trip movie about a lawyer and his father-in-law?
That the disaster is never specified might be the point of the movie — when the world ends, we may not notice that the apocalypse is happening. It might creep over us while we're in the middle of a more important task. (Like, say, collecting your pregnant wife from Seattle, where she's, uh, busy being pregnant. Will is a lawyer and gets a few basic personality traits, but Sam is not afforded that luxury.)
Unfortunately, the "buddy road trip" part of the movie isn't strong enough to hold the fort for that narrative. Tom and Will barely have time to bond between thwarting car accidents and shooting at state troopers. Then — your final spoiler alert — Tom dies, leaving Will to fight on alone. The movie briefly introduces a third character, Ricki (Grace Dove), who has potential, but she escorts the narrative after she decides she simply...doesn't want to travel with Will and Tom. Incidentally, Ricki, neither do I!
Will does eventually find Sam, making it to an ash-covered Seattle to discover that she left a note for him scribbled on the side of their apartment. He finds her at Jeremiah's house. Jeremiah looks like he's up to something, and he doesn't like Will. Will gets suspicious and, after a tense conversation in the woods, Will kills Jeremiah. (Jeremiah pulled his gun first, but Will shot first.) Right as he does so, an explosion goes off nearby. Then, Will gets Sam in the car and off they go, a massive explosion following close behind them. Roll credits.
This ending could mean a few things. It could mean that How It Ends is gearing up for a sequel. It could mean that this was a simulation where individual violence — like Will shooting Jeremiah — sets of climate disasters, which makes this a cautionary tale. It could mean that this really was the end of the world, but we just didn't get to see Will and Sam die on screen. It could also mean that How It Ends is a bad movie.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Kat Graham said that she thinks the ending is meant to be open-ended because, well, the end of the world is open-ended. We don't know what will happen.
"It could be open-ended, or it could end right there, and I think that's what makes this movie so special," she said. Special, huh?