Leave the World Behind (2023)

The end of the world has been on a lot of people's minds in the last few years.  The war in Ukraine began with Vladimir Putin threatening to use whatever rusty tin cans in his arsenal would still do any damage, things are heating up once again in the Middle East with Iran now antagonizing a nuclear power - Pakistan - who might have less restraint than many of its peers, and there is a mentally unbalanced ex-President that has too much of a chance of returning to power.  With various media outlets using social networking as a place to chum the waters it seems like everyone is more on edge than ever.  One of the more interesting television shows in recent years, Evil, often uses these provocations as plot points in its own end-times scenarios.

Leave the World Behind is a 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam detailing the beginning of a worldwide societal breakdown due to the loss of certain modern functions such as electricity and internet.  It doesn't move on with any of the normal pat solutions of the military returning things to normal or people banding together to overcome adversity, but rather just shows what the first few days of such an event would look like.  The book includes a bit more wrap-up, in the way a literary narrative can and a film narrative cannot, but it is not as focused on one place and time.  Sam Esmail, in writing and adapting the book and directing the film, kept much of the plot but further isolated the location in order to, instead of making a story about how disparate people would react to such an event, make a comment about reliance on technology and the state of American politics. 

Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts) decides she has had enough of New York for a bit and plans a surprise vacation for her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and their children Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie).  She books an expensive vacation home on Long Island and the family settles in.  While at an outing to the beach an oil tanker suddenly runs aground and, when the Sandfords return to the home, they find that the internet is out as well as television reception.  In the middle of the night they hear a knock on the door and are greeted by a man introducing himself as G. H. Scott (Mahershala Ali), who has arrived with his daughter Ruth (Myha'la).

G. H. introduces himself and informs the Sandfords that he is the one they are renting from, asking to spend the night as there is currently a blackout in New York.  Clay is willing, but Amanda is suspicious that they may be trying to pull a scam.  Ruth is hostile toward Amanda as well, suspecting that racial prejudice may be behind her reluctance to believe them despite all the evidence they can provide.  Soon the question is put to rest when other things begin to occur, including the surprise appearance of large amounts of migrating deer and a piercing sound coming from everywhere at once.  When Archie falls ill G. H. and Clay attempt to illicit aid from a local survivalist named Danny (Kevin Bacon).  

Although I know that Esmail wanted to score political points and make some clever comments about technology and our current use of it to ignore what is going on the world, concentrating on the United States as the target was a mistake.  I haven't read the novel so I don't know if there is ever a specific reason given for the events, be it an attack or a natural disaster, but Esmail goes out of his way early on to make sure it is clear that it is manmade.  He just never lets us know who, whether it is domestic or, as Danny supposes, a coalition of America's enemies cooperating to bring the country down and get America out of their way. 

This makes the movie version of Leave the World Behind too much like many similar films and television series about the end of the world.  The default is that when faced with adversity most nations - especially America - will fold and devolve into chaos.  I have always thought the reality is more in the middle and, to Esmail's credit, he allows the situation to play out between the Sandfords and the Scotts to where they reach a way to cooperate despite initial mistrust, even if scenes later in the film give a sense that there is a larger breakdown in more urban areas.

As for the much-criticized ending, I feel that Esmail was going for a final punchline to drive home his views on technological dependency and the pacifying of the public with bread and circuses.  It makes sense in the context of the movie he made, even it doesn't quite work.  There is more to the ending of the novel, which was not seeking to make a dark-humored comment on such, but was aiming at a realistic depiction of what a severe disruption to the modern world would look like.  Still, Esmail manages to come up with some effective scenes, including the one with runaway Teslas and the standoff between G. H. and Danny.  Budgetary limitations, however, result in some dodgy CGI that renders the encounters with deer and flamingos almost laughable and the initial oil tanker accident looking like an unfinished effect.  

This benefits from having actors the caliber of Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke and Mahershala Ali, giving a bit more gravitas to a script that can't decide whether it wants everyone to be archetypes or have a bit of grey area in their morals.  The sense of isolation works and allows for the bigger scenes to look a bit better than they may have otherwise, but it just seems that so much more could have been done with the long runtime of this movie and that it could have focused on this being a worldwide disaster rather than, as usual, treating the United States as it was the center of everything.

Leave the World Behind (2023)
Time: 138 minutes
Starring: Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali, Myha'la, Charlie Evans, Farrah Mackenzie
Director: Sam Esmail 



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