Leave The World Behind review — Apocalypse now and more later on

Directed by Sam Esmail | Written by Esmail, based on the novel by Rumaan Alam | 148 min | ▲▲▲▲△ |  Netflix

This is one of those Netflix features that got a week in cinemas in advance of its debut on the streaming giant, but with no hype you’d be forgiven for missing it. That’s too bad, because this is a film, like so many, that benefits from a big screen presentation while at the same time is guilty of a lot of unnecessary stylistic flourishes in the cinematography, which might turn out to be less egregious at home. It’s a credit to the screenwriting, the performers, and the production in general that this apocalyptic drama is still entirely worth watching, a sizzling, uneasy genre picture.

Esmail is best known for his clever science-fiction show, Mr Robot, and has shifted that program’s anxiety to a new level, while the source novel must’ve impressed the Obamas — they’re on here as executive producers.

Leave The World Behind tells the stories of two well-off families who meet at a time of crisis where members of each family don’t trust each other at first. Why that’s the case is really interesting, and one of the things that’s most compelling about the story — it’s about our baked-in worldview and sublimated racism.

Wealthy New Yorkers, Amanda and Clay Sandford (Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke), grab an AirBnB out on Long Island somewhere, a chance to get out of the city and away from their busy lives for a quiet weekend with their kids, teen Archie and tween Rose (Charlie Evans and Farrah Mackenzie). The house is palatial, a modernist, multi-floored home with a pool surrounded by woods. Late one evening, GH Scott and his daughter, Ruth (Mahershala Ali and Myha’la) appear at the door, claiming to be the family that owns this house. Amanda doesn’t trust them, or the story they’re telling about a blackout in the city.

I had questions too, like why would any family this wealthy post their weekend home on a short-term rental site, but OK, let’s get to the meat of this thing.

What’s really happening? Is this some kind of attack by a foreign power, is it Skynet initiating Judgement Day? Is it The Happening? I make that reference deliberately, because Leave The World Behind lies firmly between Shyamalan and Charlie Brooker, lacing a sense of mythological horror around the end of the world with a deep anxiety around our tech.

The gymnastic camerawork, especially in the first act, is largely unnecessary — it’s like Esmail saw Panic Room and decided that just wasn’t enough — as is the frequently distracting score from Mac Quayle, using atonal techniques that feel like they’re lifted directly from cheesy supernatural thrillers of the past. This self-consciousness is an odd creative choice as it mostly succeeds in taking us out of the movie.

Once things settle down through the middle, the visual effects and set-pieces start to pay off. Not all of this makes sense as Esmail pushes against the borders of realism — characters’ interactions with CGI wildlife feel like a stretch — but the growing dread is wonderfully staged and constructed as the characters fray.

It also upends the rule of Chekov’s gun, which adds to the unpredictability. A scene where someone unexpectedly has a dental issue, and another involving a fleet of Teslas, they’re highlights.

The performers are solid — you expect as much from Roberts, playing a surprisingly unlikeable character, Hawke, Ali, and a couple scenes with Kevin Bacon playing a right wing survivalist — but it’s the younger actors who genuinely lift the material, Myha’la especially.

That the picture ends with an ode to physical media is a delightful cherry on this cinematic sundae, a flawed but solid thriller charged by a powerful undercurrent of what’s wrong in America in 2023.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.