If you grew up in the United States, as this critic did, you became familiar with a noise that sounded a bit like a robot getting electrocuted. It would come on your radio periodically, and it would make your blood run cold even though you knew – because you had memorised the wording – that it was only a test. “This is a test of the emergency broadcasting system. This is only a test.” Then that sound of robot electrocution, lasting around five excruciating seconds where you wondered if indeed, the world was ending.


Most people were lucky enough never to hear it for real. Probably they heard it in New York City on 9/11. The rest of us hear it in Leave the World Behind, Sam Esmail’s new Netflix original film with an all-star cast, facing … well, they don’t know what they’re facing. All they know is that their phones and other communication devices don’t work, and that this time the robot’s painful final moments may not be just a rehearsal.

It may be a mild spoiler, but let’s say it anyway: It’s not the end of the world that’s coming in Leave the World Behind, even if the title suggests otherwise. However, this actually gives the film a flavour that’s ominous because it stops short of this ultimate endgame, one that has become such a crutch for filmmakers who want the immediate gravitas of apocalyptic stakes. What’s happening is the cause of intense speculation by the main characters, and Esmail leverages that emergency broadcast noise, disorienting even in the best of times, to worry and disquiet us as well.

As these things do, it all starts out innocently enough. Amanda and Clay Stanford (Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke) are New Yorkers with two teenage children, Archie and Rose (Charlie Evans and Farrah Mackenzie). Seeking to jolt them out of a rut, Amanda spontaneously rents an isolated Long Island home, intending for the family to pack up and leave that very day for a stay of a couple nights. Clay, who still has the sleep in his eyes, is befuddled by this new information but affably agrees.

It isn’t long after they reach their destination that they start wondering about little technological failures. Their phones don’t have service. The WiFi doesn’t work. There’s snow on the TV, and not the kind that falls at high altitudes. And then when they’re down at the beach, they’re confronted by the first true evidence that something is really wrong – though as people are wont to do, they shrug it off. After all, it’s a stable world we live in, built on a reliable infrastructure … right?


As evening falls and the technology is still blacked out, there’s no doubt now they’re in the midst of some sort of event, and the situation complicates itself. Two strangers appear at their door, but not the sort you might suspect at a time of heightened vulnerability. He’s G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and he’s wearing a tuxedo. She’s Ruth (Mhya’la) and she’s young enough to be his twentysomething daughter … which is who she says she is. They also say this is their house, and they instinctively returned here as a safe haven in light of what’s happening. There are no pictures to prove their identity, but that makes sense – you tend to put the family pictures away when you rent out your home. However, in this new situation where little information is available and even less reliable, Amanda in particular is freaked out about what they’re supposed to do now.

To make matters more creepy, the animals have started acting strange. A single deer spotted in the woods becomes a dozen, and they’ve all got their eyes fixed on the home as though something’s about to happen.


Leave the World Behind gets a lot of mileage from such warping and twisting of our expectations of how technology will work, how animals will behave, and how human beings will engage with one another in a time of crisis. It escalates chillingly, but part of the reason it’s chilling is that there’s no one big explainer dropped in the middle of it all. And a review like this one is not going to do the film a disservice by spoiling whether it ever gets to that big moment, or if it’s all just tantalizing misdirection.

More than anything, the film is not about the what but the how, specifically, how an ordinary family rises to such an occasion. There’s a character in the film – a farmer played by Kevin Bacon – who represents the extreme end of not trusting your fellow human when the shit hits the fan. But he’s a guy with a ready shotgun, and we might expect him to react that way. How do ordinary people react? What’s necessary to protect your family and what is an overreaction that displays inner prejudices and losses of humanity?


Esmail’s film, an adaptation of the Rumaan Alam novel, distinguishes itself through little details that place it recognisably in our world. For example, daughter Rose is desperately trying to watch the last episode of Friends, an activity she had just started when the technology went haywire. Even 20 years later, this is indeed something modern teens might obsess about, and her quixotic quest to finish the series – at the expense of most other instincts for survival – gives the film a dose of humour that leavens its bleaker ideas.


The irony, given the previous praise for this choice, is that the ambiguities about what’s happening, and why, leave Leave the World Behind in the category of “good but not great.” A few of the threads that are introduced never get a satisfactory explanation, even if there are satisfying things about the way they play out. Is this a test, or isn’t it? There’s no doubt it’s worth watching to find out.


Leave the World Behind is currently streaming on Netflix.

7 / 10