I became aware of Leave the World Behind, a new film that’s now streaming on Netflix, when Julia Roberts mentioned it a few days ago on the Graham Norton Show, where she co-guested with Cher, Tom Hanks, and Timothée Chalamet. Her sales pitch was impressive. She said that when the producers were casting it, they sent her a copy of the 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam on which it’s based. She dove into it at once, but took a long time getting to the end because it was so terrifying that she had to put it down at sunset.
Partly because of that pitch, and partly because I’d watch Julia Roberts in anything – well, not Eat Pray Love – I checked the picture out. It starts by introducing us to Amanda (Roberts), who works in advertising and lives in Brooklyn Heights with her husband, Clay (Ethan Hawke), a professor of media studies, and their teenage kids, Archie (Charlie Evans, who could be Chalamet’s younger brother) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie). As the story begins, Amanda tells Clay that they’re all going to get out of the city for a couple of days, away from it all. “I f***ing hate people!” she squawks. She’s already rented a Long Island beach house.
So off they go. The rental turns out to be one of those sprawling, ultra-modern architectural showplaces that seem to turn up frequently in Netflix movies (Secret Obsession, The Invitation, Intrusion). Anyway, no sooner are Amanda and her family settled in than weird things start happening. Their phones don’t work. Neither does the TV. On the beach, an oil tanker runs aground. (Great visual.) The name of the tanker is White Lion. (White lyin’? Is this a reference to the perfidy of Western countries vis-à-vis OPEC countries?) That night, the house’s owner, G. H. Scott (Mahershala Ali), shows up in a tuxedo with his twenty-something daughter, Ruth (Myha’la), and explains that they’ve been to a concert and decided to come here, rather than return to their principal residence (Park Avenue between 81st and 82nd in Manhattan, no less), because there’s a blackout in the city.
There’s instant tension. Amanda, the misanthrope, doesn’t trust G. H. Yes, he’s obviously from a higher socioeconomic class than she is – but he’s also black. Would somebody like Amanda be racist? No. But we’re supposed to believe she is. In any event, the Scotts stay over. And the morrow brings more weirdness. On the beach, G. H. encounters the remains of a crashed airliner, then witnesses the crash of another. (Another great visual.) Clay, driving to town, is stopped by a terrified woman babbling hysterically in Spanish (a wince-inducing cliché) and is engulfed in leaflets, dropped from a drone, reading “Death to America” in Arabic. Back at the house, deer, flamingos, and birds begin acting funny. (Another cliché.) Flickers of news come in: a news update on Amanda’s phone says that hackers caused the power outage; the TV works for a few seconds, during which there’s mention of cyberattacks taking place around the country; Clay, in his car, hears a fragment of a news report about a “catastrophic environmental disaster in south.”
Amanda and Clay decide it’s time to leave. But when they and the kids drive off, they end up dodging a fleet of self-driving cars, all of them empty, that are racing dangerously down the highway into one big pile-up. (Yet another cool visual.) So it’s back to G. H.’s place, where the families grow closer even as the tensions persist – and the suspense builds. G. H., an investment banker, admits that the real reason he eschewed Manhattan the night before was that just before the blackout, a client of his – a defense contractor with Pentagon connections – made a large, urgent transfer of funds and warned him cryptically to take care of himself.
I have to say that the first two-thirds or so of this movie had me going. The acting – by the adults, anyway – is terrific. The suspense, thanks to strong camerawork (Tod Campbell) and music (Mac Quayle), builds nicely. (On the other hand, the scenes focusing on the kids – who remain stubbornly one-dimensional throughout – feel endless, dragging this 141-minute movie down significantly.) One eerie touch, reminiscent of the chilling 2007 movie 1408: although the camera doesn’t play it up at all, the huge abstract painting that dominates the living room keeps changing.
Going into Leave the World Behind, I knew that its executive producers were Barack and Michelle Obama, so I kept waiting for political messages. When they did come, I was reminded that back in the 1930s and 40s, Hollywood writers who belonged to the American Communist Party were under strict orders from Moscow to work Stalinist propaganda into their scripts, but not to be too heavy-handed about it.
So it goes here. It’s no surprise that while the white man, Clay, is something of a wimp, the black guy, G. H., is preternaturally wise, civilized, and brave; even though he’s pretty sure his wife, an art dealer – who, when the blackout hit, was flying back home from Morocco – is dead, he maintains remarkable self-control. At one point, he and Clay drop in on a neighbor, Danny (Kevin Bacon), so the filmmakers can show us how they think a gun-owning MAGA type would respond to catastrophe. “It’s the Koreans behind all this,” says Danny. “The Chinese, one of them.” Yet even he, a heartless white survivalist from Central Casting, parrots leftist geopolitics: “We’ve made a lot of enemies around the world. Maybe all this means is that a few of them teamed up.”
Then there’s Ruth. When, at one point, she says to G. H. that “trust should not be doled out easily to anybody, especially white people,” we’re plainly not supposed to see her as a racist but as a realist in a white supremacist world who’s trying to rein in her overly big-hearted dad.
Of all the characters in this piece, it’s Amanda who changes the most. At first a total pill, she eventually loosens up with G. H. – almost to the point of adultery. And she apologizes for having been suspicious, explaining that her “whole job is to understand people well enough so that I know how to lie to them and sell them things they don’t really want.” Human beings, she says, “f*** each other over all the time without even realizing it. We f*** every living thing on this planet over and think it’ll be fine because we use paper straws and order free-range chicken.” Is all this scary stuff, she wonders, happening because of man’s inhumanity to man?
Meanwhile, for all the terror that’s unfolding, Rose can’t stop whining about how desperate she is to continue binging Friends. These details seem to add up to a bit of a sneer – courtesy of Netflix, mind you! – at Americans’ addiction to media. Nor does it seem random that Rose’s favorite show is that vapid, all-white fantasy of New York life.
Ultimately, the main problem with Leave the World Behind is that all of the effective suspense-building turns out to be for naught. I don’t want to give away the ending, but then again there’s not really much of one to give away. When it was over, all that I was left with was a vaguely bad taste in my mouth; in the end, the film felt like a glib indictment of Americans – particularly white males. In one shot we see the earth from the moon’s surface, an American flag in the foreground: is the point here that Americans have used technology to “conquer space” while, at the same time, trashing the earth?
Who’s behind this movie? I looked up Sam Esmail, its writer-director. Turns out he’s a Muslim who, when he won a Golden Globe for his TV series Mr. Robot, gave his acceptance speech in Arabic. Curious about his source material, I bought the Kindle edition of the novel, whose author also has a Muslim background. For what it’s worth, the book is beautifully written, and, like the movie, is preoccupied with race and class; Esmail’s main contribution is to have piled on the weird events and dialed up the message-mongering – the latter, one gathers, with no little help from Barack Obama himself, who is said to have exercised major input into the screenplay.
Which raises the question: why – aside from the delicious Democrat-style digs at white America – did the Obamas choose to produce this, of all properties? After all, it presents a scenario of precisely the type that you can easily imagine Obama and his fellow globalists deciding to inflict on us all. At the climax, as the adults try to dope out what’s going on, G. H. rejects as simple-minded the proposition that the world is run by a secret cabal of elites. What a message to be sent by Barack and Michelle, those two Davos darlings!
No, what’s going on, G. H. suspects, is the implementation of a Pentagon plan that he heard about from that defense-contractor client of his. It involves toppling a country in three stages. First, isolate everybody by disabling communications. Second, bring about “synchronized chaos” through misinformation and other means so that people “turn on each other.” Third: “coup d’etat. Civil war.” Again, it’s a bizarre speech to hear in a picture produced by the Obamas – for who knows more about turning Americans on each other than our blessed Barack, who transformed an essentially post-racial country into one where racial identity soon became the be-all and end-all, and who, behind the scenes, is still hard at work trying to rip this country further and further apart?
Still, when you think about what Leave the World Behind, in the final analysis, is saying to us, the Obamas’ involvement doesn’t seem so odd after all. For in part, at least, it’s saying exactly what the Obamas’ Teutonic buddy Klaus Schwab – the World Economic Forum despot – has been saying for some time: simplify, simplify! Don’t be so dependent on technology and media. Don’t travel so much. Why leave a nice apartment to stay in somebody else’s beach house? Why have two lavish residences, one in Manhattan and the other on Long Island? Why fly to Morocco? And what about all that free-range chicken? No, better to live in 15-minute cities, buy less, drive less, eat bugs, and be prohibited from flying. It may sound repressive, but it’ll be good for the planet, limit the impact of cyberattacks, and keep you safe. And believe it or not, you’ll like it. Because you’ll know – from, in part, propagandistic pictures like this one – that the only alternative to systematic and obedient self-denial is a creepy descent into sheer apocalyptic horror.