Slouching toward mayhem

Leave the World Behind is a post-post-modern apocalypse for our times

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

By their nature, apocalypse movies are unsubtle. Regardless of the trappings, every film in the genre follows the same basic narrative arc: one day things are normal, the next day things change, then keep changing with increasing intensity until everything changes, and all for the worse. The only space for creativity is with the personalities and context of the characters, and the specific extremities they must endure. 

In the new Netflix streamer Leave the World Behind, released on the platform Dec. 8, those personalities are almost universally unlikeable, the context is insufferably bougie, and the extremities are as vague and quotidian as they are maddening and, ultimately, world-ending.

All that is to say, Leave the World Behind is a disaster movie that could only work during this particular time, freighted as it is with radical wealth disparity, misguided tech messianism, fractured (or nonexistent) social connections, and a general feeling of cultural and political helplessness.

Screenshot from the film. Courtesy image.

Here’s the setup: A couple of clearly quite well off white New Yorkers Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay (Ethan Hawke) decide on a whim to shrug off what passes for the pressures of their life in a tony neighborhood of Brooklyn and take the kids on a quick getaway to a vacation rental house in “the country.” 

Almost immediately, the audience is clued into the fact that Amanda is galaxy-class narcissist and misanthrope, as she gives her husband the reason for packing up their stuff and leaving the world behind, as it were: “I fucking hate people.”

Amanda is some kind of P.R. and marketing person and Clay is an English and media studies professor. Their kids are mostly cardboard cutouts: the son is a standard-issue teenage screen junkie and the younger daughter is obsessed with the sitcom Friends, which she watches like it’s her job, and is anxiously nearing the finale that occurred in real life about six years before she was born. (You know, because she lacks any real human connection and Friends “makes me happy.”)

Their rural escape turns out to be a palatial home on Long Island, outfitted with all the ultra-techno conveniences of someone who is obviously even richer than they are, and they settle in for a few blissful days of being generally useless in someone else’s nicer house. (Sound familiar?)

The first sign of ominous things to come arrives when they spot a crusty looking local (played with side-eyed menace by Kevin Bacon) at the grocery store as he loads up his truck with cases of bottled water and other cliched “survival stuff.”

Amanda and Clay — the Sandfords — shrug it off, as they also shrug off an enormous oil tanker that soon after runs aground on the beach where they’ve decided to sit around, also being useless, for the afternoon. The funny bit here is that their daughter notices the ship approaching for more than an hour before it becomes clear that its navigation software is leading it on a slow-motion collision course with the spot where they’ve spread out their towels. It isn’t until the thing is almost upon them that they think it might be time to pack up and leave.

That’s the first major event that indicates something has gone very wrong. The second major event is when the owner of the house in which they’re staying shows up with his daughter in the middle of the night, tells the Sandfords that the city is experiencing a blackout and can they please stay the night.

Amanda, being the wretched creature that she is, immediately doubts the man, who introduces himself as G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali), and his 20-something daughter, Ruth (Myha’la), are really the homeowners because, despite the fact that G.H. is wearing a tux and Ruth is decked out in an elegant-yet-hip party dress, they’re Black. 

Clay, meanwhile, welcomes them in with an apparent gesture of hospitality; but, of course, it’s their home. His display of “we’re-all-cool-bro” geniality is even more insidious than Amanda’s blatant racism, as it illustrates how easily he has slipped into the idea that he’s the one in the position of power. 

It’s in these constant microaggressions that Leave the World Behind shines as a disaster movie.

Meanwhile, things go from bad to worse, as the cell service goes down, then the smart TV. That’s the last straw, and the Sandfords venture out into the much-changed world only to scurry back to G.H.’s house.

What follows is mounting uncertainty about what’s happening — cyber attack, terrorist attack, inside job? It’s every conspiracy theory come to life, and G.H. knows a lot more about it than his increasingly unwelcome guests. 

All the while, the Sandfords and the Scotts must navigate each other amid a woozy sense of amorphous calamity. That’s been done better by the likes of Don Delillo in White Noise, but where Leave the World Behind excels is in running the awful Sandfords through their paces, step by step shattering their illusions of control, racial and class position, and even value as functioning human beings. But will their daughter ever see the finale of Friends? No spoilers here.

Like I said, it’s a disaster flick for our age. Stream it on Netflix.

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