de facto film reviews 2.5 stars

Director Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) has shuffled back to feature filmmaking with the begrudgingly-paced but captivating apocalyptic thriller Leave the World Behind, based on Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel. The Netflix film flew under the radar until its release last week, quickly gaining traction, and is still the #1 film on the streaming platform. Its popularity is surprising considering the thriller’s longer-than-average runtime, but a stellar cast and intriguing premise promise much. Sadly, Esmail’s newest feature doesn’t quite live up to that promise, failing to deliver what could have been a genuinely compelling examination of the beginning of the end times.

Leave the World Behind - Rose and Archie

In Leave the World Behind, parents Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay Sandford (Ethan Hawke), along with their children Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans), go away to Long Island for an impromptu vacation. One night, G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la) appear at the Sandfords’ AirBnB, claiming it is their home. A citywide blackout forced the Scotts to seek shelter, and now, the two families reluctantly take shelter amid a sudden Internet outage. When animals begin encroaching on their spaces and aircraft fall out of the sky, the Sandfords and Scotts attempt to determine the cause behind the mysterious communications disaster.

Exploring the precursor to some calamitous, world-ending event is not new to cinema, though it has been prevalent since the turn of the century. Leave the World Behind offers nothing fresh in that regard; instead, it acts as a contemplative exercise from the Average Joe’s perspective, focusing on a handful of random people as they blindly navigate the outset of a strange phenomenon that causes them to become closer than they ever would have thought possible. There is no hero, catalyst, or pivotal informant of the conflict at hand, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it offers a unique way of approaching this familiar subject and a more relatable experience for most viewers. However, on the other, the lack of such an element begs some form of advancement within the plot or some exciting change to its characters, but ultimately, neither occurs.

Leave the World Behind - Families

The ultimate movie sin of Leave the World Behind, and possibly an issue passed on from Alam’s novel, is that nothing particularly substantial happens throughout its lofty two-hour and 18-minute runtime. The principal characters meet, initially distrustful of one another; they attempt to figure out what is happening, connect due to their newly isolated existence, ponder possibilities, and so on until the movie finally putters to its glaringly obvious, unsatisfying conclusion. The myriad of dialogue-heavy scenes of characters just talking does allow for some semblance of character growth, particularly amongst one another (a misanthropic Amanda becomes close with G.H., and racist undertones shared by both families eventually wither), but these arcs still feel unfulfilled. Furthermore, the various interwoven political points are too surface-level to be taken seriously.

Fortunately, despite its pacing and plot progression shortcomings, Leave the World Behind excels in other areas. The small cast, including Kevin Bacon in a couple of tense scenes, is excellent—as expected. Roberts and Ali arguably possess the best chemistry as the apparent rivals turned comrades, and Myha’la performs her role more than adequately. Even Hawke, as the average father trying to save his family (but hardly another engaging personality trait), is alluring in the way only Hawke can be. In addition, Esmail admittedly drums up a tense and fascinating mystery for much of the film, employing Mac Quayle’s simplistic score to great effect alongside some thrilling VFX work and stunning cinematography.

Leave the World Behind - Amanda and G.H.

Audiences who enjoy methodical, mentally prodding cinema, particularly about this all-too-plausible subject matter, will likely appreciate Leave the World Behind for the questions it raises and the anxiety-inducing environment it constructs. For others, however, it may prove a far too grueling exercise in patience with little meaningful payoff. Compared to its genre contemporaries, the film tends to lack the action of The Day After Tomorrow, the cleverness of Pontypool, or even the emotional weight of this year’s Knock at the Cabin. In fact, I wonder if such a doomsday scenario would be more exciting as a Discovery Channel documentary featuring a simulation of similar events than a movie like this, despite its few impressive and very watchable qualities.

Leave the World Behind is now playing on Netflix.