How It Ends (2021) arrives as yet another cinematic proof of why we don’t need movies that recycle our pandemic lifestyles.
The other day I’ve been wondering whether the COVID-19 pandemic will sprawl out ingenious masterpieces such as, let’s say, the Chernobyl series by HBO. While we still didn’t recover from the pandemic’s disastrous death count, that gruesome experience’s too fresh to be looked at from new, blissful perspectives. I’m positive that a worthwhile, thoughtful piece of cinema about the biggest health crisis of our times will happen eventually, even if it’s gonna take years.
Alas, it’s definitely not here yet, at least not in the form of How It Ends (2021), a Sundance hit that sweeps all major film events in its buoyant festival circuit, and now landed safe and sound on VOD.
For now, the artistic echo of the pandemic reverberates in numbers of films that cling onto its day-today relatability. Such is the case of Language Lessons (2021), a cute, heartfelt movie where two people bond over zoom calls. Having to live that life myself for the last year and a half, the film brings very little novelty, and its online-based form cannot escape some of the obvious perils – such as visual monotony.
Bearing that in mind, How It Ends (2021) had sketched a more creative take on the pandemic. At least on paper it did. On the last day of Earth, Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones) takes off to a party where she’ll toast to the end of all things. A meteor speeds towards our planet, and there’s nothing humanity can do. On her way, she’s joined by her Younger Self (Cailee Spaeny), an embodiment of Liza’s consciousness and a walking advice spitter on what Liza should do in order to live this last day to the fullest.
So, the plot finds Liza on a journey of letting bygones be bygones, settling any remaining bones of contention, and figuring out what went so wrong that she’s going to die alone. That translates into a film, in which two characters walk around the desolate streets of LA, meet a bunch of A-list actors – Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Nick Kroll etc. – and… that’s it pretty much it. They sit on porches, or stand on the sidewalk, or sit in chair to spice things up. While all this commotion takes place, they also talk.
Sure, given the pandemic circumstances, directors Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein had to keep all the encounters within the boundaries of sanitary precautions. Don’t get me wrong – this film still had a chance, if only its sole problem were actors trying not to contract the coronavirus.
Even if the filming circumstances were rigid, the writing wasn’t confined in any way by the pandemic. Yet How It Ends (2021) swims as close to the surface as it possibly can. The writing duo Lister-Jones and Wein develops little depth to any aspect of the pandemic’s reality. Liza catches up with people, chats with them, and traverses the most boring parts of LA, and everyone seem to be unanimously at peace with their death. Amidst a dramatic shortage, and a lack of reasoning as to why should I, the viewer, care, How It Ends (2021) fails to be something more and a cute, flat flick. Even when Liza’s crisis seems to reach its definite heights, the film plays the exact same tones – chirping birds, sunny all-day-long and nothing to worry about. Maybe except a giant piece of rock that’s about to blowup this hellhole.
No help comes from the sci-fi side of How It Ends (2021), which strikes me as a plain promotional hack. Indeed, Younger Self concept intrigues, and works thanks to the spot-on dynamic between Lister-Jones and Spaeny. The latter’s a particular joy to watch, and she confidently patches the holes appearing in her character’s development. I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of experiencing a day with a self from the past – a bittersweet composition, in which experience clashes with uncompromised joy of adolescence.
Yet the film also sells a lie of the last day on Earth being accepted by the entire population in the exact same manner. Moreover, sci-fi elements exist only in dialogue lines, when someone reminds us why Liza walks around LA. It’s a shortcut of gargantuan size, and even larger consequences. Apocalypse’s been way too often shown through riots, fires and Purge-like stuff, hence the laidback attitude of all LA citizens just doesn’t do the trick. No, it’s not original or inventive – it’s sadly simplistic.
Last, but not least, How It Ends (2021) feels somehow self-indulgent. The cameos waste talents of actors who all delivered far more complex , and – since this is a comedy – funnier roles. All of these people simply play themselves, appearing as cogs in the machine that pushes Liza to meet her exploding destiny. Even if you treat How It Ends (2021) as a series of sketches – approach a friend of mine recommended in the case of this film – most of them are more confusing than comedic.
If How It Ends (2021) is what we have in store when it comes to the pandemic times, then cinema should follow the steps of bears. Gobble as much pre-pandemic movies as possible, sleep throughout the whole crisis, and wake up when we’re ready to deliver quality.