Amid Netflix’s tradition of post-apocalyptic films, Leave the World Behind, adapted from Rumaan Alam’s novel by writer/director Sam Esmail, ventures into the genre, weaving a suspenseful psychological thriller that explores societal disintegration and the tensions arising from disparate individuals forced to navigate a world in turmoil. Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke lead the cast, embodying a seemingly affluent New York family seeking refuge in a lavish Long Island mansion. The film grapples with racial tension, conspiracies, and the looming threat of an uncertain apocalypse.
This review aims to dissect Leave the World Behind through a feminist and post-colonial lens, delving into its portrayal of gender dynamics, racial tensions, and societal disarray. Additionally, this review explores the film’s connection to the COVID-19 pandemic, examining how it reflects and resonates with the collective anxieties of our time.
Feminism gone awry with Amanda’s complexity and gender dynamics in Leave the World Behind
The film introduces Amanda Sandford, portrayed by Julia Roberts, as a complex character marked by misanthropy. Her depiction as a prickly misanthrope adds layers to the narrative, but there is a missed opportunity to explore and critique her character fully. Amanda’s despicable behaviour, particularly towards Ruth, a character played by Myha’la, raises questions about the film’s commitment to challenging racial and gender dynamics.
Amanda’s reluctance to acknowledge the blackout and her bigoted suspicions towards the Scotts, played by Mahershala Ali and Myha’la, contribute to the racial tension that permeates the narrative. The film, however, falls short of explicitly labelling Amanda’s actions as racist, opting instead for a weak backstory to justify her behaviour. This choice seems to undermine the potential for a more profound feminist critique, leaving Amanda’s character stranded in the realm of petty prejudices rather than engaging in a deeper exploration of systemic issues.
While Leave the World Behind attempts to address gender dynamics through Amanda’s character, there’s a missed opportunity to delve deeper into a feminist exploration. Amanda’s misanthropy and questionable behaviour, while providing a glimpse into individual prejudices, fall short of presenting a comprehensive feminist critique. The film lacks a robust examination of systemic gender issues, leaving Amanda’s character to embody personal prejudices rather than engaging with broader societal structures. A feminist lens could have been employed to dissect power dynamics, toxic behaviours, and how individuals, particularly women, navigate a world in crisis.
The film’s failure to capitalise on this potential feminist narrative thread results in a portrayal that, while absorbing, remains shallow in its exploration of gender dynamics within the context of the apocalypse.
Post-colonial and post-modern racial tensions and the apocalypse
The racial tension between the Sandfords and the Scotts serves as a central element in the film, reflecting the underlying societal issues that persist even in the face of a potential apocalypse. Amanda’s blatant disregard for Ruth’s emotions and the elevation of her white children’s feelings above those of Ruth highlights a power dynamic rooted in racial inequality.
Moreover, Leave the World Behind’s attempt to intertwine racial tensions with the unfolding apocalypse echoes broader post-colonial narratives. The portrayal of a divided nation grappling with issues such as white liberal racism, class divisions, and conspiracy theories reflects a society on the brink of collapse. The relentless onslaught of issues mirrors the multifaceted challenges faced by a nation struggling with its internal conflicts, echoing post-colonial themes of unresolved power dynamics and the consequences of historical injustices.
The ambiguity surrounding the cause of the catastrophe, left open in Alam’s novel, allows audiences to fill the blank space with their conjectures, fostering self-examination and contemplation.
Pandemic unveiling societal fault lines in Leave the World Behind
As Leave the World Behind addresses a dysfunctional nation facing an array of existential threats, its release during the COVID-19 pandemic adds a layer of significance. The narrative mirrors the real-world anxieties and divisions exposed by the pandemic, from class disparities to political unrest. The film becomes a reflection of the societal fault lines that the pandemic has unearthed, emphasising the fragility of the social fabric and the potential for an explosive unravelling.
The choice of thematic elements, including the impact of media, market fluctuations, and political divisions, resonates with the challenges faced globally during the pandemic. However, the film’s attempt to address these issues becomes overwhelming, culminating in a narrative that lacks a cohesive focus and struggles to deliver a nuanced exploration of its themes. The film’s visual medium presents a challenge in exercising restraint, opting instead to throw a plethora of societal issues at the screen. The portrayal of a divided nation grappling with racism, class divisions, and conspiracy theories becomes overwhelming, mirroring the complexity of real-world challenges. While resonating with post-colonial themes, this ambitious endeavour sacrifices depth for breadth, resulting in a narrative that feels disjointed and lacks a cohesive exploration of societal fault lines.
The missing element: emotional stakes and narrative flaws in Leave the World Behind
One critical flaw in Leave the World Behind lies in its failure to establish real emotional stakes. The absence of a significant onscreen death, a powerful tool in disaster films, diminishes the emotional impact and weakens the narrative’s ability to connect with the audience on a personal level. The lack of a pivotal moment that propels the characters toward survival, empathy, or humanity leaves the storytelling feeling lax and wobbly. The film’s thematic elements, including the impact of media, market fluctuations, and political divisions, resonate with the challenges faced globally during the pandemic. The choice to portray a dysfunctional nation becomes particularly poignant as viewers grapple with a world in upheaval.
However, the film’s attempt to address these issues becomes overwhelming, culminating in a narrative that lacks a cohesive focus and struggles to deliver a nuanced exploration of its themes. The parallels drawn between the fictional apocalypse and the ongoing pandemic, while relevant, do not translate into a seamless narrative that effectively navigates the complexities of a society on the brink.
While Leave the World Behind is absorbing in its character-driven motifs and boasts strong performances, it falls short of delivering an emotionally resonant experience. The decision to withhold a human element, treating it as a secret clue rather than a necessary key to the heart, hampers the film’s ability to fully engage the audience in the unfolding crisis.
Cinematic craftsmanship: Esmail’s visual flair
Amidst the film’s narrative shortcomings, one aspect deserving praise is Sam Esmail’s visual direction. Esmail, known for his work on Mr. Robot, brings a refreshing and audacious visual style to Leave the World Behind. The love for wild, swinging camera movements, as evidenced in long pans, ostentatious crane shots, and reoriented compositions, injects a sense of vitality into the storytelling. The imagery of powerless planes, falling fliers, and weaponised self-driving Teslas creates a chaotic tapestry reflective of the apocalyptic scenario.
In a cinematic landscape often marked by predictable visual language, Esmail’s bold choices stand out, showcasing a genuine desire to experiment with the medium. The incorporation of Kevin Bacon as a mysterious off-the-grid figure adds an intriguing layer, contributing to the film’s visual flair. In a narrative that struggles with emotional stakes, Esmail’s visual inventiveness serves as a commendable attempt to engage the audience through the sheer dynamism of the images on screen.
Leave the World Behind emerges as a film of grand ambitions and notable shortcomings. While it boasts a visually audacious approach, Sam Esmail’s directorial choices cannot fully compensate for the narrative’s lack of emotional stakes and cohesive exploration of societal themes. The film’s attempts to weave feminist and post-colonial perspectives into the narrative fall short of delivering a profound critique, leaving these thematic elements as fragmented reflections rather than integral components of the story.
In the end, Leave the World Behind remains a mosaic of visual inventiveness, societal critiques, and missed opportunities. Its commendable efforts to engage with complex themes and reflect contemporary anxieties, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, are hindered by a narrative that struggles to find its emotional core. But despite the film’s flaws, it invites viewers to ponder the fragility of societal structures and the myriad challenges that threaten to unravel the world as we know it.