1 of 5 | From left, Mahershala Ali, Myha'la, Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke star in "Leave the World Behind." Photo courtesy of Netflix
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- Leave the World Behind, in theaters now, gets off to a promising start when America's sweetheart Julia Roberts announces, "I [expletive] hate people" before the title even appears. Unfortunately, misanthropy can only carry the movie so far before it gets old.
Amanda (Roberts) plans a spontaneous beach vacation for her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and their kids Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie). The first night, the owner of their rental, G.H. (Mahershala Ali), shows up with his daughter, Ruth (Myha'la).
G.H. says New York City blacked out so he thought his beach house would be safest. Internet, cell phone and television outages make it impossible for Amanda and Clay to corroborate.
The setup initially asks questions about how people treat each other in uncomfortable situations. The owner of the rental home showing up reveals how Clay assumes the best and Amanda is suspicious.
It's not lost on Ruth that Amanda happens to be suspicious of a Black family, though Amanda has demonstrated to the audience that she's equal opportunity cynical. Amanda does make some careless microaggressions.
But, it's not a twist that there is actually a crisis. The real point of the film, based on Rumaan Alam's book, is to ask how people will treat each other in a real emergency.
Many great movies have depicted catastrophes through the prism of a few individuals. In those stories, it's usually the in-fighting that becomes a greater threat than the zombies or marauders outside.
These characters are drawn a little too one dimensionally for those dynamics to feel real. The film also never goes deeper than observing that any two people have different conflict resolution strategies.
Amanda is bitter, Clay thinks everything will work out and he's wrong, Rose is having major withdrawal from her devices, Archie mentions a girlfriend twice, G.H. is just trying to keep everyone as calm as possible and Ruth is righteously indignant.
Filtering this crisis through the world of the privileged also feels disingenuous, since most viewers would be with the folks off-screen stuck in a city, or on the side of the road. Leave the World Behind can't compete with the horror show of the last four years, watching people minimize emergencies in real life.
This cast can still make conflict and desperation somewhat compelling. When Amanda and G.H. finally find some common ground it is satisfying. More of that could have helped make the film's cynical thesis feel more complex.
The film asks them to go to some bizarre extremes too. Roberts sells yelling at a herd of deer as best she can.
The opening credits list "and Kevin Bacon" and Amanda does see him early in the film. But by the time he returns for his proper scene, it's a relief that the movie is finally near the end now that he's earned his "and" credit.
There are a few suspenseful depictions of calamity. Most notably, a sequence with out of control self-driving Teslas would fit in a Roland Emmerich movie.
Another scene in which Clay encounters a woman who needs help but only speaks Spanish is palpable, because language barriers would be challenging to navigate in a crisis.
Those scenarios are only of fleeting interest to writer/director Sam Esmail though. He'd rather watch his beach house families act like they have the exclusive insight into humanity.
Esmail photographs Leave the World Behind similarly to his TV show Mr. Robot. Framing is not quite as off kilter as that show, but the camera is often just a little below or off to the side, with actor eyelines looking somewhere out of shot.
Esmail does like turning the widescreen camera sideways, so for example the camera is vertical when characters are lying horizontally in bed. Showing some of the carnage of the disaster sideways is less effective than just letting us see how vast the destruction is. When he shows a lit candle horizontally, that's just pretentious.
Leave the World Behind feels a little too late with its perspective that most people will look out for themselves during a crisis, and takes far too long to make such a basic point.
Leave the World Behind will stream on Netflix Dec. 8.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.