Recently, the Apple TV+ show, Extrapolations, showed how humans are single-handedly responsible for the demise of the world. It showed that even though we don’t have the luxury to shift to another planet—which is why we need to save Earth—we won’t come together as a unit and prioritize our biases. Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up did something similar by showing that, even if something as imminent as a meteor is about to decimate the planet, we are not going to do anything substantial to ensure our survival. It also showed the fabled dream of shifting to a new planet that billionaires keep pushing for, and the dream turned into a nightmare within seconds because humans are that vulnerable and weak. Episodes of Love, Death, and Robots and Black Mirror have briefly explored this idea with cats as well. Leave the World Behind joins this pantheon of apocalyptic and paranoia-inducing stories, and it’s probably the vaguest entry yet.
Sam Esmail’s Leave The World Behind, which is based on Rumaan Alam’s novel, tells the story of a family of four–Amanda, Clay, Rose, and Archie. Amanda works in the advertising sector while her husband Clay teaches English and media studies at City College. Archie is creepy and plays video games. Rose loves Friends. One fine day, Amanda decides to go to Long Island for a family vacation because she thinks that she has been focusing too much on her career, and she wants to dedicate some time to her loved ones. As soon as they get there, several weird things start to happen spontaneously. But the alarm bells in Amanda’s head go off when the father-daughter duo of G.H. Scott and Ruth show up at their doorstep, claiming that it’s their house and they want to spend the night there to avoid the blackout that’s plaguing the country. When the external situation begins to escalate, both families are forced to lower their guards and trust each other to weather the unavoidable storm that’s coming their way.
Leave the World Behind is about a lot of things and nothing at all. Esmail wants to talk about how common it has become for us to hate each other for one reason or another, even though we know that we cannot survive without the help of our neighbors, friends, and strangers. He wants to highlight the fact that we have become overly reliant on technology and that it can be turned against us within seconds. He wants to point at Elon Musk and laugh. He wants to talk about the death of physical media and the importance of nostalgia during the darkest of times, even though his movie has been released on Netflix, a streaming platform that is hugely responsible for the death of physical media and isn’t ashamed to milk our nostalgia. He wants to talk about racism and how it can be used to manipulate us. He wants to show how inept our defense forces actually are and how they’ll prioritize the rich and the powerful when the time comes. He wants to talk about the perversions of white men. And he wants to call out Americans for being ignorant about funding several wars with the tax money that their country has waged in the name of nationalism, oil, and “peacekeeping.” Esmail does hint at his intent through well-written dialogue, which sounds amazing when it’s channeled through the film’s stellar star cast. But that’s all there is to it. Just hints.
Leave The World Behind is an expertly crafted film, and there’s no doubt about it. Tod Campbell’s cinematography, Lisa Lassek’s editing, Mac Quayle’s music, the production design by Anastasia White, the art direction by Christine Foley, the visual effects, the stunts, the special effects—it all comes together to realize Sam Esmail’s frenetic and thrilling vision. The first time that the Scotts meet the Sandfords, you can literally feel the sense of tension in the air. The scene where Archie and Rose go into the woods, Amanda and Ruth have a conversation, Clay tries to get a newspaper, and George goes out to look for supplies—that is edge-of-the-seat stuff. There are several other sequences like that where you can’t help but tense up. But everything that happens between these beautifully executed bits is what hurts the film. Esmail wants you to expect that there’s more to this phenomenon and there’s a conclusive answer around the corner, but then he veers into ambiguous territory to say that when the apocalypse is imminent, it’s pointless to search for the reason why it’s happening. And, to be honest, that’s a fair statement to make, especially since humans have the tendency to rationalize everything even though we, as a species, are beyond redemption. However, the fact that he doesn’t dwell on this too much and spends more time on the mystery angle is why the whole exercise feels kind of hollow.
The cast of Leave The World Behind is as good as you think they are. Julia Roberts is excellent when she flares up, and it’s hilarious to see her go against the type of person she seemingly is in real life and say the most spiteful things about humans. She is convincing enough to make the friendliest person second-guess their affection for those around them. Ethan Hawke is brilliant. He is the complete opposite of Roberts. He trusts everyone, and he is probably allergic to the word “no.” He is so nice that he generates doubt because nobody can be truly “good” in this treacherous world. But Hawke makes these characteristics feel genuine. Mahershala Ali is great! I think he is one of the most charming actors working in the industry right now. He exudes kindness, strength, and mystique, while imbuing George with a quiet sense of vulnerability. Myha’la plays the most relatable character in the film. She always says what the audience is thinking, and her chemistry with acting veterans like Ali, Hawke, and Roberts is incredibly impressive. Farrah Mackenzie and Charlie Evans are a little one-note, but they play that one note so well that I didn’t really mind them. And, of course, Kevin Bacon’s cameo is a showstopper. The dude’s screen presence is through the roof.
I won’t lie, Leave The World Behind is a very engaging film. I didn’t feel a second of its 141-minute-long running time. From start to finish, Sam Esmail keeps you hooked to your small screen. But as the credits begin to roll, you’re left with an overwhelming sense of confusion about the point of the movie. Was it about distrusting our government? Was it about putting our faith in people? Was it about stocking our house with supplies? Was it about hating tech billionaires like Elon Musk? Was it a cry of anguish due to the death of physical media and the rise of streaming platforms where any movie or show can be deleted at any second, thereby erasing the blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of artists? Was it about comeuppance? I don’t really know, and if confusing the hell out of us was the whole point, then Sam Esmail and his team have done a good job.