‘Leave the World Behind’ delivers a sobering jolt of ‘Mr. Robot’-style paranoia

Mahershala Ali, Myha’la and Farrah Mackenzie in "Leave the World Behind."

Mahershala Ali, Myha’la and Farrah Mackenzie in “Leave the World Behind.”Courtesy NetflixCNN — 

After making a splash with “Don’t Look Up,” an OK disaster movie buoyed by its provocative premise, Netflix deserves to make an even bigger one with “Leave the World Behind,” a better apocalyptic thriller with a foot so firmly planted in reality, those who stream it might not sleep for days. Edgy, unsettlingly paranoid and genuinely clever, it’s a logical continuation of the conversation writer-director Sam Esmail started with “Mr. Robot.”

Beyond star power from Julia Roberts (who previously worked with Esmail on the Amazon series “Homecoming”), Mahershala Ali and Ethan Hawke, the production team for “Leave the World Behind” includes the Obamas, marking the couple’s first fictional movie under their Higher Ground production banner. Having shrewdly chosen classy documentaries, the company is yielding dividends to Netflix five years into their deal that go beyond vanity and the prestige of an association with the former president.

Adapting the novel by Rumaan Alam, Esmail shoots the movie in a way that at times almost feels like a filmed play, allowing for long exchanges between characters. Some of those prove a bit clunky, but he then punctuates them with jarring images and a dissonant soundtrack offering a taste of the chaos that appears to be ensuing, much of it discretely off screen.

Amanda (Roberts) and her husband Clay (Hawke) have rented a house in a remote area of Long Island for a vacation with their two teenagers (Charlie Evans, Farrah Mackenzie), the latter so amusingly obsessed with “Friends” that all she can think about when all hell starts breaking loose is whether she’ll ever get to finish her binge watch.

After a strange incident at the beach, a man claiming to be the owner of the house they’re renting, G.H. (Ali), shows up with his grown daughter (“Industry’s” Myha’la), clearly flustered by the unraveling situation and lack of access to media in the wake of a blackout apparently caused by a cyberattack. G.H. might know more than he’s letting on, as the sense of unease spirals and unusual events keep occurring.

Mahershela Ali as G.H., Myha'la Herrold as Ruth, Julia Roberts as Amanda and Ethan Hawke as Clay
CR: JoJo Whilden

Mahershela Ali, Myha’la, Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke in “Leave the World Behind,” from writer-director Sam Esmail.Jojo Whilden/Netflix

Breaking the movie into chapters gives “Leave the World Behind” a more literary feel, with issues of trust potentially exacerbated by those involving race and class. The lack of clarity about what’s happening, meanwhile, helps approximate being in the characters’ shoes, while underscoring the vulnerability of our digitally connected world.

As noted, Esmail tapped into that corner of the zeitgeist with “Mr. Robot,” but the outline of Alam’s novel not only dovetails with that but refines it, digging into society’s fragility on a micro and macro level, in a way that owes a debt to a particular “The Twilight Zone” episode, updating it for our times (to say which episode would get into spoiler territory).

Where “Don’t Look Up” made its point about obliviousness and indifference to the climate crisis through exaggerated satire, Esmail delivers another sobering message, imbued with its own warning, in a package blending horror with the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s.

That works as entertainment, but it’s among those rare films that challenge viewers to think and succeeds in making them do so. It’s worth noting, too, that while Netflix has given the movie the obligatory theatrical run along with its other prestige-seeking fare, its impact will likely be greater viewed at home in our own little media cocoons.

Whatever one takes away from it, “Leave the World Behind” should trigger conversations beyond whether to https://milodingines.com/ hit the “like” button. By that measure, give Esmail credit for a movie that up, down or sideways, makes it hard to look away.

“Leave the World Behind” premieres December 8 on Netflix. It’s rated R.

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