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Leave the World Behind

After 'Mr Robot', writer/director Sam Esmail gets paranoid again, this time with Julia Roberts- and Mahershala Ali-led families stuck on Long Island when a communications outage strikes.
By Sarah Ward
November 23, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
November 23, 2023
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UPDATE, Friday, December 8: Leave the World Behind screens in cinemas from Thursday, November 23 and streams via Netflix from Friday, December 8.

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Call it the one with Julia Roberts playing the mother of a Friends-obsessed 13-year-old girl who hasn't clocked that someone closely resembling her mum pops up in the sitcom's second season. Call it writer/director Sam Esmail still ruing humanity's technological reliance and seeing only dystopian outcomes after Mr Robot became such a small-screen success. Call Leave the World Behind an effectively unnerving psychological thriller about a mysterious communications blackout striking while one New York family holidays at another's palatial Long Island vacation home, too. Down Under, badging it the horror version of Australia's November 2023 Optus outage also fits — just with a home-invasion angle that can be read two ways; Hitchcockian suspense, sharp writing and baked-in bleakness; Barack and Michelle Obama as executive producers; and Roberts (Ticket to Paradise) starring alongside Ethan Hawke (Reservation Dogs), Mahershala Ali (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse), Myha'la Herrold (Dumb Money) and Kevin Bacon (The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special).

In her second chaotic getaway in two successive movies, Roberts plays Amanda Sandford, an advertising executive who prides herself on being able to read people and situations. But her professor husband Clay (Hawke) is surprised to awaken one morning to news that their brood is going away for a few days, thanks to a humanity-escaping misanthropic urge and a last-minute online booking. He and the couple's kids — the older Archie (Charlie Evans, Everything's Gonna Be Okay) and younger Rose (Farrah Mackenzie, United States of Al) — aren't complaining about the break, though. Then problems after eerie problems occur. First, an oil tanker runs ashore on the beach. Next comes the late-night knock at the door from their holiday home's owner GH Scott (Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Herrold), who've driven in all dressed up from a night at the symphony. In a movie that isn't afraid of M Night Shyamalan-esque setups on its route to potential societal collapse, a power, phone and internet outage follows, plus oddly behaving wildlife and disquieting developments from above.

Paranoia is Esmail's on-screen wheelhouse as much as distrusting the gadgets and connectivity that've become foundations of 21st-century life, so him bringing Rumaan Alam's 2020 novel to the screen is hardly a shock. Cultivating tension is also key among the film and TV director, writer and producer's skills, with Leave the World Behind providing another superb avenue for him to demonstrate that talent. With Mr Robot and this, which is only his second feature as a filmmaker (after 2014's Comet), Esmail has proven fond of filtering life's stresses, reliances and fears through harrowing but grounded-enough situations. Leave the World Behind's circumstances coming true doesn't feel like a fiction-only jump, and nor do the reactions from Amanda, her loved ones and the strangers that they encounter. If existence as we currently know it concludes, falters or is disrupted significantly, perhaps it'll be more mundane than instantly cataclysmic, Esmail keeps positing.

Scene by scene, Leave the World Behind tears into the vacation idyll early. The trip to the beach under beaming sunlight becomes a disaster movie when Rose spots the ship heading straight for the shore, as grippingly handled by Esmail, his regular Mr Robot cinematographer Tod Campbell and editor Lisa Lassek (Dead Ringers). The distress that lingers in that incident's aftermath only multiplies when the Scotts show up — not thanks to their presence, but due to Amanda's Karen-style reaction. When there's no way of accessing the outside world, the kids try to swim away the unease while the adults argue, yet the disquieting vibe just keeps building. As the tanker moment illustrates, Leave the World Behind doesn't shy away from hefty instances of prospective end-of-the-world mayhem, with more springing; however, blockbuster spectacle isn't this feature's core focus.

Indeed, this isn't just a film about responding to another apocalyptic scenario, of which screens big and small can't get enough (see: Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin, plus The Creator, Biosphere and The Last of Us are a mere few fellow 2023 examples). Leave the World Behind is also steeped in today's attitudes as well as its accoutrements; that Alam's book is a pandemic-era release is fitting. So, the entitlement and prejudice that Amanda sports when financial planner GH and twentysomething Ruth arrive speaks volumes. The division and doubt between Amanda and Ruth across generational and racial lines do as well. The same applies to the panic when no manner of devices can deliver the news, a number of supremely self-serving decisions, and one helluva dark but glorious gag that stops anyone from hightailing it out of there and never looking back. As the Sandfords and the Scotts alike — and survivalist Danny (Bacon) as well — contemplate what's behind their chilling change of affairs, surveying everything from cyberterrorism to nuclear troubles, that humanity might be its worst enemy echoes loud and clear.

Esmail and Roberts have teamed up before on TV series Homecoming, which he created and directed, and also when the former executive produced the latter-starring Gaslit. Enlisting America's sweetheart in an against-type part that gets her playing suspicious, privileged, contemptuous and prickly guides out a compelling performance, and one of her best in years; Roberts turns in an invested portrayal, and is also among the movie's producers. An always-magnetic two-time Oscar-winner (for Moonlight and Green Book), Ali renders GH as open, trusting and reasonable where Amanda is not, with some of the film's top sequences stemming from the pair sharing the frame. Hawke nails his affable part, and Herrold her no-nonsense role. It isn't just how its characters handle their plight, for better and for worse, that makes Leave the World Behind resonate with emotional truth, but the fleshed-out performances that are always centre stage.

On the list of things that Esmail and his film don't shirk, humour and paying homage to Hitchcock also rank highly. The idea that the crashing of society mightn't stop a TV fan from wanting to see how their favourite show ends is both an astute commentary on the dominance of pop culture and deeply funny, while nods to The Birds and North by Northwest are well-handled tributes. Making Friends the series that Rose is obsessed with is all the more affecting after Matthew Perry's recent passing, but it's "I'll be there for you" refrain was always pitch-perfect for this tale. As America and the globe keep being factionalised, doomsday possibilities continue to loom and conspiracy theories about almost everything abound, what and who will be there for you? Call that one of the trains of thought that this ambitious, playful, savvy and cutting picture serves up.

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