“I fucking hate people” is the final point Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts) makes in her case to her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) as she is justifying why she booked a spontaneous vacation for them and their two kids to leave the New York City, and head to fancy house in Long Island. Amanda’s distaste for people isn’t a surprise considering how Sam Esmail’s film Leave the World Behind makes it very clear throughout that we live in a harsh world; one that lacks even more empathy and understanding of our fellow human beings than when Rumaan Alam’s book was released back in 2020. Enamored with this novel and its concepts during the pandemic, Esmail set out to create an entertaining commentary on human interactions and our capacity to evolve, even in our darkest times. Instead, we are given a bloated, unoriginal, painful two-and-a-half-hour film that is the clear definition of the phrase “die on the vein,” which is when something fails before it even has a chance to become something interesting or special.
As the Sandfords arrive at their gateway destination, all their rules of life go away as Amanda lets Clay smoke cigarettes for the first time in years (as long as it is not in front of the kids), and for their kids, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie Sandford (Charlie Evans), they get unlimited screen time on their phones and iPads as well as access to a backyard pool where they can swim all day and night. While Amanda has given her family the bliss needed to enjoy this time away, she is prioritizing her own decompression, letting the worries of the world and her job wash away as she takes in their new environment. But at the same time, telltale signs of something peculiar going on start surfacing, as Rose loses her connection to her iPad right as she is watching the final episode of Friends (a point of obsession for her throughout), the loss of TV service, Richie loses his cell phone service, and Amanda notices a man (Kevin Bacon) at the local grocery store parking lot packing up his car with enough food and water necessary to survive something major coming. Even with all of these signs, much like we always do with the tragedies of the world that surround us, the Sandfords ignore them and head for a day at the beach, but that is put to a grinding halt when an oil tanker crashes into their portion of the beach, forcing them to leave. While the spectacle of this scene is massive in scope, Esmail’s uninspired direction is matched with lackluster CGI that kills all forms of tension. This is repeated not just in this sequence, but in later moments involving the use of computer generated deer by the hundreds, a plane crash that looks and feels made on a soundstage, and even a scene in which Clay is driving his car down a never ending road, and completely takes you out of the mysterious story that unfolds.
Once they get back to their house, the family winds the day down by making a little dinner before the kids go to sleep and Amanda and Clay stay up drinking some wine. As they are about to open a new bottle, the doorbell rings and that’s when this vacation starts coming to a full stop. At the front door is G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la), the rightful owners of the house the Sandfords are staying at, are looking to return to their home due to a blackout in the city. When G.H offers to refund the visiting family for their stay to regain the control of their household, Amanda pushes back, unable to recognize that the “G” stands for George, the same name from the email that set up their vacation. By questioning if George and Ruth are who they say they are, she forces a rift between the two sets of adults that feels like it could turn hostile at any moment. In an uninspired attempt to examine current racial politics, Esmail’s script never lands anything beyond the surface level stereotypes about how white and black people interact or truly feel about one another. Moreover, these feelings or ideas are never resolved with enough emotional catharsis, particularly for Amanda and Ruth, for the audience to see any chance of growth. There is a moment where Amanda does take down her walls with George, has a drink with him, and shares a (unintentionally hilarious) dance with him, but given the other unworldly circumstances going on around them, she reverts back to being reserved around him and Ruth and the movie can just never evolve any of these characters.
Beyond just their feelings for one another, they are forced to be with one another because of what we believe is a blackout, but turns out to be a cyber-attack by enemies of the United States, looking to cause our country to turn into panic and destruction. We only find this out through a glitch in the attack, and some media alerts pop up on Amanda’s phone, leading all involved to become paranoid about the world outside of their Long Island destination. Attempts to leave become useless, like when the Sandfords pack up their car to head to New Jersey and are attacked by an onslaught of self-driving Tesla vehicles, in a scene ripped right out of Children of Men, though far less visually interesting. But everything that we are seeing isn’t a shock to George, as he started to slowly feel that the talks and lessons from a former client of his that worked for the U.S government told him the game plan for an event of this kind. Build tense, break communications, isolate citizens, and watch as it all falls apart is how the plan would work and how we see the film’s events unfold.
The way in which Esmail presents all of this information is all show and no tell, slowly laying out information piece by piece only when it is necessary to move the story along, but none of it making sense collectively as the film concludes. The biggest example of this is Esmail’s excessive use of the CGI deer throughout the film, using them as building tension in the world building of his film as dozens migrate to where our main characters are staying at, to being eye rolling MacGuffins to help out characters get to the next part of this endless adventure. Does it lead anywhere or add any value to the film? Not really, and there lies the fundamental problem with everything else going on in Leave the World Behind. Esmail, the writer and creator of the popular television series Mr. Robot, complicates the narrative so much with side plots of government conspiracies, A.I dependence, the bleakness of a fallen nation, alongside cringe humor and outdated culturally conversations, it is all put together to be jumbled mess that rivals the bloviated, arrogant work of Adam McKay shown in his work like Vice and Don’t Look Up. Leave the World Behind feels like it is from the vision of someone who thinks they are the smartest man in the room, admiring their mix of ideas one after the other, and yet, feels like a knockoff of a Lost or Black Mirror episode.
You would think that with a cast like this that it could elevate or save this material, but it almost feels like they are all in very different films, and are struggling to help each other figure out what kind of performances they need to make this disastrous film work. Roberts, a producer on the film, delivers nothing fresh to her role as Amanda, and while she is bringing the audience into the film right at the start with her charm as she is delivering a darkly funny monologue, from that moment she is wasted into being either annoyed, paranoid about George and Ruth’s existence at the house, or wandering through the narrative without anything interesting to do. Ali, who replaced Denzel Washington (who made the smart move to detach from this project) in the pre-production process, gives another standard performance where his cinematic command and presence outshines another thinly developed character in his filmography. Myha’la, alongside Evans and Mackenzie, provides thankless work that is borderline annoying with each line of dialogue they deliver. The only person who was close to presenting an interesting take on someone truly going through the ringer during this wild situation is Hawke, whose public carefree persona mixes quite well with the structure of Clay as a character, and when he is faced with morally complex situations (a truly wild scene involving a stranger by the side of the road), Hawke allows you to buy into his performance. It’s just a damn shame no one else joins him along for the ride, thus making the film’s run time feel like a giant chore.
Leave the World Behind will have no trouble finding an audience on Netflix. It is the kind of film that is tailor-made for a streaming service; with a star-studded cast involved in an end of the world narrative based on a popular novel, i.e Bird Box 2.0. Maybe it will spark a conversation, maybe it won’t; that remains a mystery. What is clear is that, based on a poorly written, constructed screenplay with underwhelming performances, poor visual concepts, an overbearing score with head scratching song selections throughout, Leave the World Behind is destined to be a movie lost in the void of a streaming service that will premiere better, more complex pieces of entertainment shortly after it releases, thus rendering this pointless exercise obsolete.
This review is from AFI FEST 2023. Leave the World Behind will be in select theaters on November 22 and on Netflix December 8.
Photo courtesy of Netflix