Leave the World Behind Review

Netflix’s Leave the World Behind is a frustratingly uneven post-apocalyptic drama that crumbles under the weight of its self-importance.

PLOT: In the aftermath of a mysterious disaster, two wealthy New York families are forced to co-exist at a remote mansion.

REVIEW: Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind is a mixed bag as far as apocalyptic thrillers go. While well-acted and peppered with some dazzling directorial flourishes, the movie is also undisciplined, with an indulgent run-time and characters that aren’t as compelling as high-profile stars might have you believe. It’s watchable and entertaining, but it spins its wheels too much in the final act and loses steam well before the credits roll.

If anything, Leave the World Behind is an excellent example of how sometimes a straightforward genre film can lose its way if puffed up with self-importance. Director Esmail (Mr. Robot), in his feature debut, is trying to make a classic, with the film an adaptation of the novel by Rumen Alam. It sports weighty themes about class and race and boasts none other than Barack and Michelle Obama as producers, but it completely lacks any sense of tension.

Part of it is that the class warfare aspect never really lands. It’s hard to invest too much in that dynamic when the divide is between the wealthy and the ultra-wealthy. Both sides of the equation are from the “haves” part of society. The film revolves around an upper-middle-class couple from Brooklyn, played by Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke, who stay at a luxurious Air BnB on Long Island with their teenage kids in tow. They’re surprised when one night, the house owner, played by Mahershala Ali, arrives with his twenty-something daughter in tow (Myha’la), asking for shelter following a pandemic.

The unspoken conflict comes from Roberts and Hawke being white, while Ali and his daughter are black. We’re supposed to believe that Roberts, despite being a seemingly educated New York liberal, has a hard time believing that a black family could be higher on the socio-economic echelon than her. However, it’s never spelled out and left as context. 

Frankly – I didn’t buy it.

Roberts plays her character, initially, as a kind of brittle “Karen” esque figure, but Esmail, and perhaps Roberts, never really goes far enough to depict the danger of such a character. Pretty quickly, her character’s supposed racism (which is never articulated) is dropped, with her grooving along with Ali to Next’s “Too Close” in the living room and becoming more of a standard Julia Roberts-style heroine.

The only character who articulates any kind of prejudice is Myha’la as Ruth, the daughter of Ali’s ultra-wealthy GH, who wishes her dad would just evict the white family living in their home. One interesting thing is that the movie subverts stereotypes by having the women be the ones wrapped up with race while the men, played by Hawke and Ali, don’t seem to really care and just want to band together to survive. 

leave the world behind review

As the movie goes on, the racial aspect is ditched, with it becoming more of a thriller, and perhaps that’s why the class/racial aspect is never that impactful, as it’s abandoned. The genre part of the movie remains vague but still seems familiar. While there are some exciting moments, such as a set piece that recreates the famous crop-duster moment in North by Northwest with a jet, you never invest too heavily in what’s happening. 

The characterization of Roberts and Hawke’s kids also seems phoney, with the son peeping on Myha’la by the pool and the daughter obsessed with watching the last episode of Friends despite the apocalypse. It’s a gag that wears thin pretty early on but gets repeated over and over (and over). It’s frustrating to see teen characters written so simplistically. 

It would have worked better if Leave the World Behind had been a little leaner. At 141 minutes, the movie is frustratingly bloated, and the finale, involving a cameo by Kevin Bacon, falls flat and feels lifted from another movie. While Esmail’s undoubtedly a talented director, Leave the World Behind collapses under the weight of its self-importance. The streamer probably wanted the next Bird Box, but what they got instead is frustratingly uneven. 

The first Leave the World Behind reactions indicate the Netflix / Julia Roberts thriller is going to be a divisive viewing experience

Leave the World Behind

BELOW AVERAGE

5

About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.