The earth keeps spinning and people will continue to open doors just to encounter complete strangers, which surely will one of these days end happily ever after, right? Right!? Leave The World Behind is the latest brave soul to test out that specific theory, being shepherded by writer-director Sam Esmail as he's looking for answers to a catastrophe. This psychological thriller introduces us to Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay Sandford (Ethan Hawke), a snobby, privileged married couple who along with their kids Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans) go on a getaway in Long Island. After noticing a strange event and electronics failing, they get a midnight visit from the rental house's owner G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha'la) who are seeking shelter. As the mysterious apocalypse around them grows larger, they try to figure out what is actually going on.
First of all, it'd be both reasonable to assume that the real catastrophe here is vacationing with your characterless kids and someone who's happy to do that would deserve to face a horrible doomsday scenario. Luckily we possess this thing called movie logic so can put that aside for now and focus on the ratcheting tension instead. Adapting Rumaan Alam's novel of the same name in the process, Esmail smartly doesn't get stuck on the pages too much as he and DoP Tod Campbell are often able to elevate the overall storytelling with their active camera work, using paranoia thriller-esque zooms, trusting the cast with long scenes and swirling around with seamless connection with Lisa Lassek's editing and VFX (supervised by Chris Harvey). Even when it can be a bit too much when just photographing people in hallways, the craft on display never lets the genre or a sense of foreboding down.
Where Esmail's adaptation can come across as fairly dry is in its exploration of survival or one's vapidity that relates directly to some of these characters. Amanda's phoney, small-minded nature creates interesting sparks with the two visitors whom we know less about and Roberts portrays that skilfully as she gets to play against type here, all the while Ali balances that with a certain sense of fidgety presence. Other than that, the character depth runs out of steam about halfway through as does the dialogue, mainly because of less captivating side quests. Ruth especially is more or less just an empty idea, therefore it's not terribly surprising that Myha'la's performance is slightly too ineffective and vague for a movie about something as drastic as a possible apocalypse. Similarly lost is G.H. and Clay's little probe later, which really sucks out a lot of the urgency for a good while.
Leave The World Behind then spends some time catching up to its promise and there are recurring motifs of polluting transportation and contrasting animal uprising—something that composer Mac Quayle's strings and percussion highlight with their growling—that bring along some memorable imagery. One's reliance on technology is less developed as an idea, albeit a recurring joke about it does find nice closure at the very end (physical media, yay!). It is, of course, one of those outcomes that is clever writing but will annoy those who have lost their funny bone after some of the more meandering character moments. Esmail's tone is aligned with that sensibility because the film isn't afraid to show the characters' worst qualities with some levity, therefore you might have to swallow it all with fewer introspective thoughts since it's not really about a subversive twist that truly changes everything.
Smileys: Cinematography, atmosphere
The one where you want to know how it all ends.