Leave the World Behind is a “vacation gone awry” story — only the problem here proves more serious than missed flights or lost luggage. When Amanda and Clay Sandford rent a luxurious rural home for a weekend, they’re hoping for a little rest, relaxation, and family bonding away from the city. But then two strangers knock on their door, talking about a blackout and seeking shelter in the home they claim to own.
From there, things escalate quickly. As phone signals, TV broadcasts, and the internet suddenly go dark, they come to believe the country is under a mysterious and widespread cyberattack.
It’s the end of the world as they know it.
Writer/director Sam Esmail adapts the book Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. The film stars Julia Roberts as Amanda Sandford, Ethan Hawke as her husband Clay, and Farrah Mackenzie and Charlie Evans as their children Rose and Archie. Mahershala Ali stars as G.H. Scott, the homeowner who appears one night along with his daughter Ruth (Myha’la Herrold). Kevin Bacon also appears.
Welcome to the modern apocalypse
Apocalyptic thrillers work best when the world-ending threat feels real and even unstoppable. Leave the World Behind really succeeds here, capitalizing on our reliance on technology in our everyday lives. Even better, it does so in a way that feels matter-of-fact, not preachy. You’re not getting a heavy-handed “get off your phone and enjoy life!” message here.
Instead, the story shows how suddenly stripping away the minor conveniences technology provides can leave us floundering, unsure, and even unsafe. Without phones or internet, Amanda can’t verify the identity of the man who appears on their doorstep at night. Without GPS in his car, Clay finds himself lost when he leaves their rental home, the area unfamiliar to him. With no way to track a flight or reach out over a long distance, Ruth doesn’t even know if her mother is alive.
(And perhaps the most real struggle of all… Rose’s reliance on streaming means she’s perpetually stuck one episode away from knowing how her favorite TV show ends. The horror!)
Leave the World Behind builds out these “everyday” horrors nicely for its characters, but don’t worry about the scale staying too small. The film shows plenty of bigger, more dangerous and destructive consequences of the blackout as well. In one memorable scene, G.H. watches as planes fall out of the sky; in another, fleets of self-driving cars go haywire, crashing into one another at full speed until the roads are blocked entirely.
Also crucial to building out an apocalyptic thriller? Knowing how to tease out the tension. Leave the World Behind does an incredible job in this regard. Not only do we have the threat of the technology blackout and its consequences, we get some good interpersonal tension between our characters as well. The movie really capitalizes on feelings of unease, paranoia, isolation, and distrust to keep you hooked, wondering what will happen next.
Leave the World Behind has its ups and downs
Outside of its solid apocalyptic roots, Leave the World Behind can be a bit of a mixed bag. With such a contained story about isolation, the film relies heavily on its characters. On one hand, everyone involved in the movie is a great actor; the performances are solid and generally hit the right notes, and the actors play off one another well. On the other hand, the development of each character as individuals? Not as impressive. The Sandford kids are pretty one-note, and the movie doesn’t really address Amanda’s obvious racism, despite setting her biases up as a key point of interpersonal tension early in the film.
While the vast majority of the cyberattack drama contributes to the worldbuilding and tension in a compelling way, a few aspects feel under-developed or unnecessary. (The way the film keeps returning to deer…)
Leave the World Behind runs on the long side. However, the tension from the blackout, the fear of the unknown around every corner, and Esmail’s very cinematic direction overall keep this film compelling from start to finish. Like any good Armageddon story, it will leave you wondering how prepared you are for the end of life as we know it. And — oddly enough for a Netflix film, it will make you want to stock up on some DVD box sets.
Leave the World Behind is airing in select theaters now. It premieres on Netflix December 8.