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Leave The World Behind Review: Another Netflix Fumble

  • Some thrilling disaster movie set pieces
  • Shallow, underwritten political commentary
  • Mystery has long run out of steam before it's revealed

"Leave the World Behind" doesn't end with a twist, exactly, but the mysterious revelation it spends approximately 135 minutes building toward certainly doesn't land with the narrative-shaking impact in which it was intended. The sophomore directorial feature from "Mr. Robot" creator Sam Esmail is boldly prescient, but after more than two hours teasing several elaborate, contrasting reasons behind the eerie, quasi-apocalyptic events unfolding onscreen, I found myself out of patience. Its bold rug-pull of a climactic reveal arrived with a shrug, as by that point, the whole enterprise had run out of steam.

If this were a more taut thriller, where all the fat from the film's bones had been removed to focus entirely on the core survival tale that drives the film's momentum, then I can imagine the movie culminating with a succession of walloping gut punches as the bigger picture was revealed. Unfortunately, that's not the kind of storyteller Esmail is — and while his approach of chasing each plot strand down several rabbit holes works effectively in his television series, within the confines of a disaster movie, it makes the story feel a lot less urgent, despite the unbelievable stakes.

Doesn't grapple with its complicated characters

Adapted from Rumaan Alam's 2020 novel of the same name, "Leave the World Behind" reteams Sam Esmail with Julia Roberts – the Season 1 star of his Prime Video anthology series "Homecoming" — who here stars as matriarch Amanda Sandford, a Brooklyn mom who on a whim decides to whisk her family away for a weekend getaway to Long Island. Their idyllic break soon turns surreal, as a trip to the beach is interrupted by a gigantic ship sailing on shore, prompting everybody to flee; rumors abound that similar incidents have been happening across the country, but almost immediately, the power is cut out, with no way of identifying what's going on beyond their remote retreat. The property's owner, G.H Scott (Mahershala Ali), soon turns up in the middle of the night with his daughter Ruth (Myha'la), and this is when Amanda's paranoia hits breaking point. With everything that's going on outside, how can these people be trusted?

Perhaps the most surreal moment of Esmail's film arrives in the opening credits when Barack and Michelle Obama are billed as executive producers — a far cry from the issues-driven documentaries that have become the bread-and-butter of their production company Higher Ground. But because of their cinematic resumes, announcing their involvement with this film up top all but welcomes closer inspection as to how the film handles its weighty themes, to try to work out what they saw within such unashamed genre material. One of the most obvious threads with real-world relevancy is Amanda's distrust of the father-and-daughter, which only dies down in the second half, and appears to be driven entirely by an unconscious racist bias her family doesn't share.

This is called out by Ruth, but otherwise remains frustratingly unacknowledged; Roberts' performance is hardly subtle in its micro-aggressions towards the pair, and the movie doesn't keep its cards close to its chest about whether we can trust them, which only further exposes her hidden prejudices she's presumably never acknowledged in the open. Esmail struggles to grapple with the idea that the protagonist of a disaster movie could be anything less than sympathetic considering her circumstances, and this defining aspect of her characterization is unceremoniously dropped midway through to its detriment before it even begins to interrogate it. The paranoia of what's going on in the outside world increases, which makes the sudden out-of-character decision to start trusting the two people she couldn't previously bring herself to all the more jarring.

A B movie that thinks its above being a B movie

So, if the action within the home hasn't been configured as an allegory for America's sharp racial divides, then where are the rich socio-political themes that attracted two heavyweight executive producers? Well, this is where Sam Esmail starts deliberately muddying the waters. He sows chaos in a way that aims to frustrate characters and the audience alike, teasing out several different explanations for events and once again struggling to explore the implications of any. This is later proven to be the very point of his approach, but the ultimate explanation proves frustrating in a completely different way; after all the over-the-top incidents we've witnessed by that point, the lack of reasoning behind any of them making it an increasingly tedious viewing experience, the logical conclusion which ties everything together feels like it's arrived too late to have the intended effect. In fact, the far more satisfying ending isn't that reveal, but the way it subsequently wraps up one of the smaller storylines lingering in the background throughout — and even that reveals the film to be nothing more than a 140-minute set-up for a decent punchline that thinks it's far funnier than it actually is.

When taken as a whole, "Leave the World Behind" becomes tedious as it journeys further into several rabbit holes and further away from resolving its central mystery. However, many of the individual set pieces are thrilling when divorced from the context around them; there are demented B-movie thrills to be had in sequences involving an endless barrage of Teslas crashing around the Sandford family, or when the teenage son Archie (Charlie Evans) goes through an unexplained Cronenbergian transformation. These moments of apocalyptic thrills are strongly reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan, albeit not his recent acclaimed doomsday drama "Knock at the Cabin," but his much-maligned trash-cinema pastiche "The Happening."

Whereas Shyamalan faced ridicule for playing that ridiculous story straight, leaving most viewers assuming he wasn't in on his deliberately silly joke, every line of dialogue or off-kilter set piece within Esmail's film has been calibrated with archness. It bends over backward to let you know that it's aware of how silly it is, seemingly afraid of generating a divisive reaction; the actors' mannerisms and the oft-tin-eared dialogue are as deliberate as every camera movement, with the filmmaker straining to show just how tightly controlled his vision is, and that anything ill-fitting is there by design. There's nothing less enjoyable than a filmmaker clearly trying to make something idiosyncratic for this genre, but pulling punches in his approach to avoid becoming a laughing stock. The better version of "Leave the World Behind" might not even need to be more of a taut thriller that gets to the finish line while viewers are still engaged with the mystery — it would just need to have the courage of its B-movie convictions.

"Leave the World Behind" hits Netflix on December 8.