In LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND (2023), based on the novel by Rumaan Alam, a family of New Yorkers vacationing in Long Island find themselves facing increasing isolation and stress as a blackout strikes the region and potentially may be something much bigger. Good acting, a steadily building atmosphere of dread, and the teased-out mystery of what’s happening kept me watching, but its ending fell pretty flat for me.
The movie begins with a New York couple planning a weekend getaway with their teens on nearby Long Island. Amanda (Julia Roberts) is sick of people and wants to escape having to deal with them. Her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) is a college professor who goes with the flow. Their vacation is increasingly marred by oddities suggesting something is happening, and then a man and his daughter arrive at the house saying there’s a blackout in New York and claiming to be the home’s owners. It very quickly becomes clear that not only is something big happening, the old world they know may be over.
At the heart of this is a moral argument over whether people are essentially bad or good. Nothing shows us what people are really made of like a crisis. As a fan of apoc fiction and film, I came into this already well acquainted with the trope that the second law and order break down, nihilist biker gangs start roaming the countryside raping and killing. As a student of human nature (as most writers are), I never found that believable. People are tribal as a rule, and in a crisis they tribalize even further, usually down to the family level, and yeah they’ll fight over gas and food and toilet paper if there isn’t enough to go around, but if they can pull together, they’ll do it. We may be selfish and self-centered animals, but we didn’t make it to the top of the food chain as a species by being that way, we did it through collaboration. The key is reciprocity. I do good for you, you do good for me. The social contract. That’s how you compete and win in the game of life.
These themes are explored, refreshing to see handled in such a balanced way in an apoc film even if they’re hardly revelatory. What really carried the film for me was how grounded it felt. The isolation, the lack of information, the growing panic and terror of realizing that things may not get better. The characters pull this off, supported in no small part by the solid cast. They feel real, and their reactions feel real, which drew me in and kept me gripped. I cared what happened to them.
Where the movie falls short is in three areas. First is the apparent omnipotence of the antagonist and what GH, the homeowner (Mahershala Ali), speculates is the master plan. It’s way too sophisticated when a simple blackout would be more than enough to cause absolute chaos, as it would sow panic and disrupt access to food, water, and services like healthcare. Second is a lot of weird signs and events are handled for shock instead of realism, including how the characters react to them. As one example, an emergency alert takes over the air waves to basically say “things are bad,” but then offers no information, no instructions or anything, which is what the emergency alert system is actually for. Then you have New Yorkers old enough to have lived through 9/11 (I’m one of them) subsequently go to bed instead of obsessing over trying to figure out what’s going on, just to keep the audience in the dark. Nope. My last criticism would be how it all ended. We see a solid thematic conclusion but otherwise an abrupt and unsatisfying end to the story. Making me wonder if this might have made one hell of a miniseries instead of a movie.
Overall, I liked LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND a lot. It felt grounded enough and had strong enough characters for me to overlook how unrealistic some of the plot points felt, and for an apoc film, it handled its story and themes very well. I may not have fully appreciated where I ended up at the end of it, but I enjoyed the ride. That made it a good watch for me.