- Leave the World Behind is an aimless and overlong apocalyptic drama that wastes the talents of its star-studded cast, except for Julia Roberts, who delivers an excellent performance.
- The film borrows heavily from other, better films, but fails to bring anything original or meaningful to its narrative.
- The characters in the film lack depth and are one-dimensional, making it difficult for the audience to connect with them or invest in their story. Ultimately, the movie’s a shallow, pointless thriller with a great performance.
Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot started off as one of the best shows on TV, but soon devolved into a needlessly ambiguous, intellectually pretentious, and overlong melodrama. Unfortunately, that’s the exact same fate which befalls Esmail’s star-studded apocalyptic thriller for Netflix, Leave the World Behind. From Ethan Hawke and Kevin Bacon to Mahershala Ali and the audience themselves, everyone’s time feels wasted here, except for Julia Roberts, who is excellent as an abrasive, misanthropic woman who’s always on edge. Roberts is a courageous gem here, while everyone else seems to phone it in, though it’s not like there’s much of a script to work from.
The plot is instantly recognizable as a mixture of other, better films; seriously, you will find the exact same narrative beats in Us, Funny Games, Barbarian, The Mist, Knowing, War of the Worlds, and It Comes at Night. It also reeks of M. Night Shyamalan, especially Signs, The Happening, and Knock at the Cabin, but without any twist (or climax whatsoever). Nonetheless, a film can still rise above a complete lack of originality by perfecting tired tropes or combining them in interesting ways. That sadly doesn’t happen here, though there are a couple of very clever scenes and that aforementioned Roberts performance to make it at least a competent failure.
The film follows a family on a beach vacation at a rented home, whose holiday is interrupted by two people who claim to be the home’s current owners; they say there’s a blackout in the city, but they know more than they let on. Are they a threat, or are there bigger, more dangerous forces out there in the world, beyond this idyllic beach house? Leave the World Behind is essentially bifurcated into those two answers. The first hour feels like the beginning of a home invasion thriller that goes nowhere, and the rest of the film concerns a cyberattack that wipes out internet access. Neither narrative arc results in anything meaningful.
Leave These Characters Behind
There are two types of apocalyptic films — the macro and the micro. Movies with enough of a budget or ingenuity will take the macro view and entertain through visuals on an epic scope. Those of the micro kind are often more like chamber dramas that focus on the human condition and how disaster affects a group or a family. When an apocalyptic film decides to focus on one specific family or location, it’s gambling that the small group of characters and their experience will be more interesting or meaningful than focusing on the apocalypse itself. Leave the World Behind does this, and it’s bluffing.
In the film, an upper-class New York advertising agent and stressed-out mother, Amanda (Julia Roberts), wakes her husband up in a rush. She decided overnight to go on vacation, and she’s already packing. She peeks through the curtains and into the city, and explains to her husband in the kind of dialogue that nobody actually speaks with:
When I couldn’t fall back asleep this morning, I came over here to watch the sunrise. I saw all these people starting their day with such tenacity, such verve, all in an effort to make something of themselves, make something of our world. I felt so lucky to be a part of that. Then I remembered what the world is actually like. I came to a more accurate realization — I fucking hate people.
Cue a bombastic rap song and a long, flashy title sequence. That’s a lot of confidence for the first three minutes of a movie, and it immediately sets higher expectations than it can actually deliver. Of course, it doesn’t have any emotional resonance because you don’t know anything about this woman, and that’s one of the ultimate problems of Leave the World Behind.
For two hours and 18 minutes, you follow Elizabeth and her husband, Clay (Ethan Hawke), their children, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans), and the two strangers who show up at their vacation rental, G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter, Ruth (Myha’la). And yet, despite the 140 minutes, there’s no characterization here, really, just one-dimensional cardboard cutouts of people. Clay is the hapless husband who defers to whatever his wife says; Elizabeth is the bossy Karen; Rose just likes the show Friends; Archie is a horny teenage bully; Ruth is an angry young liberal; G.H. is the capable voice of calm who becomes a leader of sorts.
There is nothing more to them than that, other than Elizabeth and G.H. warming up to each other. Their dialogue isn’t much better, with its faux-nihilism and empty posturing. It’s either angsty in a stereotypical way (“If there’s any hope left in this f*cked up world…”) or overly formal (like Elizabeth’s little “f*ck the world” monologue). The characters in Leave the World Behind are simply too dull and trite to carry the entire film.
Julia Roberts Reigns as Queen B*tch
The actors are, of course, all very accomplished and should’ve been given much better material. Everyone trudges along, for the most part, except for Julia Roberts, who marches aggressively forward, unafraid of being hated. Her ‘Karen’ of a character could’ve been completely obnoxious (and she still kind of is), but the casting of Roberts, one of America’s rom-com sweethearts, is a stroke of brilliance, and she rises to the challenge. One character calls her “prickly,” but everyone knows she’s a bit… more than that.
And yet, Roberts injects some humor and pathos into Elizabeth in surprising ways. Little bursts of envy or malice wash over her face, and she uses that malleable mouth to spit acid whenever she wants. She’s extremely entitled and privileged, but Roberts ensures that the character is still pitiable in a way. Elizabeth is a very unhappy person, the epitomization of bourgeois class antagonism.
In many ways, she’s the driving force of the film, and whenever Leave the World Behind shies away from her, it tends to suffer as a result. The film constantly digresses into scenes of characters wandering for far too long and discovering very little as a result, and without any of the existential ennui of your average community production of Waiting for Godot. The two children find a shed in the woods. Clay drives down an endless road. Rose investigates a herd of digital deer. G.H. heads to his neighbor’s house and finds it flooded. And so on.
Related: Best Julia Roberts Movies, Ranked
A couple of scenes do stand out, though. When the family finally decides to leave Long Island after way too long, they find the road blocked by an endless line of crashed Teslas and other dangerous self-driving cars. The cyberattack that has hit the country has hacked into cars and is sending them to crash into each other and block interstates and exits. The family heads back to the house, but there are more self-driving car kamikazes hurtling toward the vehicular mass, which they then must dodge. It’s no Weekend, but it’s a clever scene that’s handled well, despite arguably being the only scene in the film that’s too short. An airplane crash on the beach is also exciting, though again, it might make you think of a much better scene in a different film (Knowing).
If This Is a Satire, It’s an Even Worse Film
Ultimately, Leave the World Behind is about uninteresting rich people stuck on Long Island while a much more interesting World War III event takes place elsewhere. We’re given glimpses of what it might be (pamphlets from Iran that announce “Death to America” fall in one state, while pamphlets from North Korea fall in another; American satellites are compromised; bombs seem to drop on New York City), but nothing more than that, and literally no ending to speak of. Obviously, some of the best endings in film history are ambiguous and unsettling, without total resolution, but Leave the World Behind cuts itself short before even that.
In fact, it might indicate that the film itself is just a sick joke of sorts, a satire about the rich and their cluelessness. If that’s the case, it’s ridiculously simple (Clay doesn’t know how to drive without a GPS; the kids lose their minds without TV and social media). Its main message, then, is that rich Americans are so lost, vain, and empty, that even when the apocalypse comes, we just want to watch Friends. That’s a theme as boring and basic as the film’s banal characters. Leave this film behind.
Leave the World Behind is now streaming on Netflix through the link below:
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