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The opening scenes of Leave the World Behind show us a seemingly average American family hitting the road on a nice vacation getaway, and it all seems fine until a very strange thing occurs on an outing to the beach, where a very large ship called White Lion comes closer and closer and finally crashing to a halt when it hits the sand, causing everyone nearby to run frantically out of its way. Immediately you think, “OK, this ship and whoever is on it is going to figure heavily into the fate of this family.” And while does to the extent that it is the first signal we get of something amiss in the world, it is only an obscure clue that disaster is looming in a more discernable form.
That family, as it turns out, has rented a handsomely appointed, plush and modern multi-level beach house and, despite the incident at the shore, are in no mood to spoil their time off. Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts) appears something of a take-charge type more attuned to things that her largely clueless but likeable husband Clay (Ethan Hawke), a passive guy less inclined to take action of any kind, even as weird events begin happening. Youngest child Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) is first to notice odd things, as the Friends-rerun- and TV-obsessed child sees creepy signals from the television set. The family also has a son, Archie (Charlie Evans), but there are unexpected visitors late at night who mysteriously come knocking at the door. They turn out to be, meticulously dressed in tux and gown, G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his very plugged-in and opinionated daughter Ruth (Myha’la). They aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the Sandfords, who don’t know what to make of the intrusion. Race subtly rears its head as well as these are people turning up out of nowhere and looking to spend the night as they too know they are affected, it appears, by unexplainable forces at work and need to shelter. Cut to the revelation that G.H. Scott is actually the owner of the place, needing to prove it in specific ways, and beyond staying there also wants to take charge from his renters.
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Director Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) previously worked with Roberts on the series Homecoming, and both landed on this material as a perfect way to collaborate again — especially since the Rumaan Alam book on which Esmail’s adaptation is based was so highly regarded. Esmail approaches it all less as a typical disaster film in which a group of disparate people are drawn into catastrophic circumstances — a cyber attack beyond their control — and more in the vein of a social thriller (think the Hitchcock of North By Northwest meets the Kubrick of The Shining and 2001 meets the paranoia of a ’70s drama like Alan Pakula’s eerie The Parallax View).
Unquestionably, for whatever genre you want to place it in, Leave the World Behind has much to say about the tenuous state of our current planet and the freewheeling technology on which we increasingly rely but which also threatens to consume us, and not in a good way. Chris Harvey and his special effects team expertly show us the ways as each of these characters go down the rabbit hole of fear, doubt, suspicion and other emotions as it becomes possible that the situation is out of hand and they have not entered the Twilight Zone, but rather the reality of the mess we have created for ourselves.
The skill here is Esmail doesn’t let the effects overwhelm the characters as so often happens once the earthquake hits or the tower goes up in flames, but the strengths and faults of each bubble to the surface and keep us guessing who is going to be standing at the end. Well into the film’s second half, a survivalist-type character, Danny (Kevin Bacon), turns up with gun in tow to further complicate matters.
The film, which opened AFI Fest on Wednesday night, is on its surface a riveting and entertaining ride, but one that offers a warning to all humanity in no uncertain terms. When I noticed that Barack and Michelle Obama were listed among the executive producers on the end credits, I could immediately see the deeper message that attracted them to attach their Higher Ground production company to the project (the former president was a big fan of the book as well). It has more on its mind than most films of its type, and Netflix has positioned it not only in the prestigious opening slot of AFI Fest, but also a theatrical run over Thanksgiving and a streaming debut for the holiday season.
Roberts gets an interesting woman to play here, not always showing her cards but a step ahead and a better match for Ali’s character than her own husband, who is the kind of person more comfortable doing nothing except when push comes to shove. Hawke plays him nicely, but Ali really delivers on a more subtle challenge as a Black man who undoubtedly has had to traverse much to get to his current station in life in a society very much on edge. Myha’la is excellent as the feisty millennial who goes by a different set of rules (in the book, the character of Ruth was Scott’s wife, but here is switched for generational reasons to be his daughter). Bacon takes what could have been a one-note backwoods type and gives him more dimension than you might anticipate, especially in the limited screen time.
Producers are Esmail, Roberts, Chad Hamilton, Marisa Yeres Gill and Lisa Gillan.
Title: Leave The World Behind
Festival: AFI Fest
Release date: November 22, 2023 (theatres); December 8, 2023 (streaming)
Director-screenwriter: Sam Esmail
Cast: Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la, Kevin Bacon, Farrah Mackenzie, Charlie Evans
Running time: 2 hr 18 min
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