‘Leave the World Behind’ Review: A Dumb Movie Disguised as a Smart Movie

Strong performances from a game cast—including Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, and Mahershala Ali—cannot save this shapeless, pretentious character drama done up as a techno thriller.

Mahershala Ali, Myha’la, Julia Roberts, and Ethan Hawke in Leave the World Behind. Courtesy NETFLIX

Early in Leave the World Behind, media studies professor Clay Sandford (Ethan Hawke) brags to his wife Amanda (Julia Roberts) that one of his students has written a book and wants him to contribute the forward. The thesis, he explains, is that media is both a reflection of and an escape from the society that creates it. Clay is proud of his student and pleased with himself, but it’s not as if this is some mind-blowing take in the field of media studies; It’s basically a description of what media studies is. There’s an inkling that maybe writer-director Sam Esmail is aware of this, that Clay is a parody of a self-satisfied academic with a meaningless body of work. (This is an Ethan Hawke character, after all.) But over the following two hours, it becomes clear that the movie itself is operating on this same level of superficial intelligence. Leave the World Behind is a dumb movie disguised as a smart movie, a middling thriller whose decorated cast and tricky camerawork can’t compensate for its undercooked, overwritten script.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND ★1/2 (1.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Sam Esmail
Written by: Sam Esmail
Starring: Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke Myha'la, Kevin Bacon
Running time: 141 mins.

Julia Roberts stars as Amanda Sandford, a misanthropic advertising executive who takes her family of four on an impromptu vacation to a beautiful rental house on Long Island. The getaway is interrupted when the homeowners, cybersecurity expert G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (My’Hala), return to the house seeking shelter as the surrounding area is struck by a communications blackout. The awkwardness of this living arrangement is the least of their worries, as increasingly strange phenomena portend doom on a national scale. Computer systems are failing or acting up in dangerous ways, and there’s neither a reliable source of information nor a safe means of escaping the island. The two families will have to overcome their suspicion of each other to survive the coming collapse.

The premise feels like a Twilight Zone setup—a small group of characters with built-in conflict gather in a single location while the bigger, more expensive sci-fi story unfolds just out of view. Leave the World Behind doesn’t quite fit that mold, as our protagonists take occasional jaunts out of the vacation home to collect clues or witness some spooky spectacle. Sprinkled across the film are some striking, unsettling images of our trusted automated systems betraying us—ships, airplanes, and self-driving cars gone suicidal like some version of The Happening about computers. It may sound like a bad sign that Leave the World Behind frequently recalls the infamous M. Night Shyamalan flop, but in truth, these are the most memorable and exciting parts of the movie. The bones of a decent disaster flick are here, but they’re buried under two hours of shapeless, pretentious character drama. Esmail (working from the novel by Rumaan Alam) continually shuffles the six characters into new permutations as if to explore new facets of their psyches or to move their stories forward, but these episodes don’t add up to anything; They’re merely opportunities for characters to spout cryptic, faux-profound observations.

The first 40 minutes strain to convince you that this is a psychological thriller and there’s more going on with these characters than there appears to be. There is actually less. Julia Roberts gets to play against type as an unlikable, passive-aggressive racist, but there’s nothing interesting about her garden-variety world-weary cynicism. Mahershala Ali is introduced with an air of mystery, but his insight into the chaos unfolding outside can all be taken at face value. Ethan Hawke’s affable academic has a traceable internal journey, but it’s the only one of a half-dozen subplots that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. His and Amanda’s teenage son, Archie (Charlie Evans), develops a creepy fixation on twentysomething Ruth, but this goes nowhere. Archie’s younger sister, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie), is obsessed with seeing the final episode of Friends, a quest that is positioned as the thematic center of the film, but there’s so much other business going on that it’s hard to tell what we’re supposed to take away from it. It’s a cluttered mess, and strong performances from a game cast cannot save it. 

Esmail attempts to underline the eeriness of this techno-apocalypse with dizzying, unorthodox camera moves made possible by drone technology. Our point of view will occasionally lift up from a typical medium shot and vault over the head of a character, or roll to the side to put us off balance. While I can appreciate the layers of intent here, and the way that these mechanical gimmicks feel more sinister in a technological horror story, the story lacks the tension necessary to make these showy visual tactics feel appropriate rather than distracting. There are moments in Leave the World Behind when the direction and the score are working so hard to sell the spookiness that the effort becomes laughable. No matter what bizarre angle we view them from, there’s just no making these characters interesting.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Leave the World Behind’ Review: A Dumb Movie Disguised as a Smart Movie