THE STORY – A family vacation on Long Island is interrupted by two strangers bearing news of a blackout. As the threat grows, both families must decide how best to survive the potential crisis, all while grappling with their own place in this collapsing world.
THE CAST – Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la & Kevin Bacon
THE TEAM – Sam Esmail (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 138 Minutes
When it comes right down to it, in a great disaster movie, there’s really only one star. It’s the devastating earthquake, the crushing tidal wave, or the fiery meteor shower that always takes center stage and is usually the film’s single most memorable takeaway. But what to make of a disaster movie where the disaster is merely a supporting player?
Written and directed by “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail, “Leave the World Behind” is based on the acclaimed 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam that centers on New York City couple Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay (Ethan Hawke), who are enjoying a weekend getaway with their teenage children (Charlie Evans and Farrah Mackenzie) at a Long Island vacation rental. Their idyll is interrupted late one night by the arrival of G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la), who claim that the house is actually theirs. It seems that an electrical blackout has paralyzed the city, and they have fled to this, their second home. Clay graciously offers them to stay the night, but Amanda, who has clearly stated that she hates people, is wary of the interlopers. Soon, it becomes clear that this is no mere blackout but instead something more widespread. Internet and phone services disappear, and all television stations offer the same blue screen, canceling all programming due to a “national emergency.” Airliners begin to fall from the sky, oil tankers run aground on public beaches, and packs of deer roam menacingly throughout the countryside. G.H., who has pointedly mentioned that his job entails working with defense department contacts, arouses Amanda’s suspicion that he’s keeping some valuable information to himself.
Esmail largely holds the disaster elements of the dystopian storyline at a distance, focusing instead on the story’s real disaster — the dramatic breakdown of everyday civility going on within the confines of the house. It’s a take on disaster films that’s not without some promise, particularly in the scenes between G.H. and his daughter trying to find a place to settle within their own home. But when issues of privilege and race come to the fore, Esmail’s script lays it on with a heavy hand, never more so than in Kevin Bacon’s survivalist neighbor who, complete with a shotgun and American flag, steadfastly refuses to share with those in need.
The film is not without some welcome wit, particularly in those scenes where grown adults are having to survive without their electronic gadgets or with Farrah Mackenzie’s Rose, whose sole goal in life is trying to finish the last episode of “Friends.” Also particularly delicious are sequences revealing just what is blocking the town’s sole escape route — speeding self-driving Teslas that do nothing but crash into one another (Elon Musk is SO gonna hate this film).
Roberts, who also produced, is in “brittle Julia” mode here, only softening at one point over a bottle of wine and an overdue conversation with G.H. It’s a familiar performance, as is Hawke’s go-with-the-flow Clay. Ali, however, is in fine form as a man who may know more than he lets on, and Myha’la adds a welcome bit of snark to the proceedings. When she thaws, she reveals a character that’s more nuanced than Roberts’ Amanda.
Below-the-line elements are solid, with a particular highlight being the home’s multi-level production design by Anastasia White, as well as Tod Campbell’s flowing cinematography with many gliding overhead shots that twist and turn through the air like a judgmental observer overseeing the characters and their slow, but assured self-destruction. However, while designed to heighten suspense, Mac Quayle’s atonal score and soundtrack choices too often call attention to itself and pull you right out of the film.
With its use of genre and movie tropes to offer political commentary on the state of a politically divided America, it’s easy to see why “Leave the World Behind” offered an appeal to Roberts and to executive producers Barack & Michelle Obama. But as well intended as the film’s politics may be, if you’re going to use a disaster movie as your template, you must at least respect the genre’s rules. And clocking in at 138 minutes, the film’s pace is leisurely (to say the least) where it has to be tight, leaving “Leave the World Behind” in a kind of no man’s land — too talky to work as a genre film and too ham-handed to offer real insight.