As much as December makes some people hopeful, it makes an equal number of people thoroughly terrified of what is to come. And Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind manages to tap into that sweet spot where optimism meets existential dread, making it the ultimate apocalypse binge.
In a lot of ways, Leave the World Behind is a love letter to 1990s TV and an earnest plea to cherish your physical media in a world increasingly reliant on slippery digital subscriptions, which gives ownership to none and will disappear in the dust the moment the grids go caput and cosmic storms topple things topsy-turvy. Your trusty VHS and DVD collection might be the unsung hero you have ignored for far too long.
Based on the 2020 novel of the same name by Rumaan Alam, the psychological doomsday thriller Leave the World Behind has all the good bits we have come to expect in end-of-the-world stories. However, the concoction of a stunningly eerie atmosphere and nail-biting build-up sets things apart in Esmail’s take on things.
The story in Leave the World Behind unfolds during a family vacation on Long Island, abruptly interrupted by two strangers—the apparent owners of the vacation home the Sandfords are renting—bearing news of a mysterious, countrywide blackout.
The story begins in a blue Brooklyn room, where the walls are cracking like a sitcom character on the verge of a punchline. The young daughter of the Sandford family, Rosie (Farrah Mackenzie), is obsessed with Friends, a show that makes you feel happily nostalgic for days that never really existed. This painted metaphor for society waiting to burst at the seams at any moment is doubled down upon when the Sandford family heads to a Long Island vacation home replete with walls with imagery of a stormy sea.
As the threat escalates, both families are compelled to confront the impending crisis, grappling with what’s outside and their own places in a rapidly collapsing world. The film hunkers down on the dichotomies of human vs nature, complexities of survival, societal breakdown, and the disintegration of the familiar amid an atmosphere thick with tension and uncertainty.
The film relies upon the unnerving and taut performances by Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la Herrold, and Kevin Bacon’s extended guest appearance as the seemingly-crazed survivalist, Danny. Esmail’s exploration of human dynamics in the face of the looming shadow of an unknown and potentially catastrophic future and the dizzying top shots and Dutch angles amplify the haunting sense of isolation that permeates the narrative.
As with a build-up so fine, you can’t help but expect a payoff that matches the intensity. Who is the enemy? Why are they under attack? Is it aliens? Is it the deer? Is it the Russians? Is it the North Koreans? Or is it a coalition formed by every enemy the US of A has raked up in its wake to become the dystopically dysfunctional beacon of all things allegedly good about late-stage capitalism?
The apocalypse genre might be oversaturated, but Leave the World Behind is that cool friend who tries to bring something new to the party. It is not about the hows and the whys. It is about revelling in the tension of the impending doomsday. It is the walk up to the collapse of society and how the rich and the moderately well-off will get to survive when the billionaires have flown the coop, leaving no one in charge.
Leave the World Behind might not answer all your burning questions, but it sure knows how to keep you entertained and slightly terrified till the songbird croons “I’ll Be There for You” in an eerie doomsday bunker. It’s the apocalypse, dearies—embrace the insanity!