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Leave the World Behind

Higher Ground Productions, 2023


Sam Esmail

Reading Time:

5 minutes

Leave the World BehindFeast (ADEILSFMW1RLGPNT)
00:00 / 05:42

📷 : Used with permission, Netflix

Leave the World Behind


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Suspenseful and intense thrillers


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Movies and TV shows with great visual effects

Chris Chaisson


Apocalyptic movies are in no short supply. Whether it’s zombies, climate change, or biblical events, stories about the end of civilization have flooded the box office for the last two decades. They may come off cliché now as a premise, but they present their characters with reliable conflicts and the consistent theme of trust. Do you trust the news? Do you trust strangers? Do you trust your own family? Similar to movies of past decades that take place in the wilderness (i.e. Deliverance, The Grey, The Edge), apocalyptic movies put on display the morality and psychology of its central characters, faced with what may be a “them or me” ultimatum. Netflix’s new thriller Leave the World Behind provides the latest twist on this trendy sub-genre.

Due to her growing disdain for people, Amanda (Julia Roberts) rents a vacation house on a whim as a leisurely escape for her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and children. Soon after they arrive, they experience trouble with all of their electronic devices before George (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter, Ruth, (Myha'la, Industry), arrive at their front door. They claim to be the owners of the house, with whom Amanda merely emailed, and explain that they were on their way back to New York City before their phones stopped working. After asking to stay in the basement with the offer of a refund, George and Ruth allow Amanda and Clay some time alone to discuss it. Once they accept, the four must get to the bottom of what appears to be a cyber-attack after strange occurrences continue happening around them, including a pileup of self-driving Teslas that blocks the highway and planes falling from the sky. What first seemed to be an innocuous prank at a local level may in fact be a more severe, intense and coordinated takedown. But is everyone who they say they are and even if so, are they divulging everything they know?

Leave the World Behind provides its audience with consistent conflict between its main characters. Clay’s trusting, laid back attitude clashes several times with Amanda’s confrontational and skeptical personality, weathered from years in the advertising business. Similarly, Ruth develops a strong disdain for Amanda, feeling put off by Amanda’s distrust and the entire notion that they have to ask to stay in their own home. Her resentment towards Amanda bleeds into her interactions with George, who she feels is being too weak and accommodating. These conflicts seep into the majority of their exchanges, along with the unspoken (for a while anyway) racial undertones. As if the clash of personalities was not enough on its own, none of them know when their Internet will be restored or what the nature of the problem is, and George and Ruth have no way of contacting Ruth’s mother to find out if she is safe.

The camerawork and direction for Sam Esmail’s thriller is highly stylized, including several overhead shots, tracking shots, Dutch angles, zooms, tilts and pans. Every camera movement conveys the uneasiness that the main characters feel, having no knowledge of what is happening in the outside world or whether they can even rely on each other. The accompanying string-heavy score uses familiar staccato notes while cross-cutting between strange simultaneous events the characters are witnessing, engulfing the audience in the overall ominous mood. 

The characters’ collective helplessness highlights how reliant modern society has become on fairly recent technology. For instance, Amanda wakes up to news alerts on the lock screen of her phone, suggesting that hackers are behind the cyber-attack. When she shows it to Clay, the messages have disappeared. Similarly, George can only send texts to his wife’s phone that never get delivered. Upon leaving the house, Clay encounters a panicked woman speaking Spanish, and since he cannot understand her, doesn’t heed any of her warnings. Their only outside source of help or information becomes Danny, an acquaintance of George’s who lives more or less off the grid and is used to existing independently of such technology.

Leave the World Behind does suffer somewhat of an identity crisis, leaving it paced in a confusing manner. It waffles between the human element of characters butting heads before learning to understand each other and graphics-heavy scenes involving large machinery crashing, or wildlife gathering in a menacing fashion. The back-and-forth of these scenes leave the audience with a lot of ideas and entertaining set pieces, but no closer to the truth and ultimate resolution of the story. Rather than piece-by-piece revelations, it serves as a mystery where all the information is jam-packed into the climax. Though the movie holds the audience’s attention for its well over two-hour running time, the story leaves them in the dark for almost its entirety. 

Nonetheless, the film, executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, provides a star-studded cast and enough entertainment to make you feel on edge throughout. The most common and direct comparison thrown out to Netflix’s new release would be M. Night Shyamalan’s earlier 2023 film, Knock at the Cabin. While not having the same long-tenured A-listers, Knock at the Cabin raises the same questions of trust among its main characters and the similar feeling of being trapped with no sense of clarity. Also, both movies have a plane falling out of the sky, always a comforting sight during holiday season.

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