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Mahershala Ali, Myha’la Herrold, Julia Roberts, and Ethan Hawke stand side by side looking worried in Leave the World Behind Photo: Jojo Whilden/Netflix

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Netflix’s Leave the World Behind serves up a very privileged apocalypse

Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail stages a gripping kind of luxury doom porn

Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

What would a global disaster look like from inside a really, really nice Airbnb? That’s the question posed — and answered, in a fairly gripping way — by Leave the World Behind, a luxe Netflix thriller adapted by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail from Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel. But this isn’t another “eat the rich” (or “lick the rich”) classist fable, in spite of some architectural similarities between its setup (and its actual architecture) and those in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Leave the World Behind gently prods at some racial and economic sore spots, but ultimately, it isn’t about conflict. Its well-to-do characters have more commonalities than differences. It’s a view of what happens when the bubble bursts, seen entirely from inside the bubble.

Amanda (Julia Roberts) is a Manhattan advertising executive, and the city has made her restless and misanthropic. (“I fucking hate people,” she announces at the end of the film’s brisk prologue, as Esmail zooms in on her face conspiratorially.) On impulse, she decides to book a last-minute getaway to a luxury Long Island holiday home for herself and her family: her more laid-back, easy-as-it-comes academic husband, Clay (Ethan Hawke), and teenage kids Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie).

The house she rents is a pristine, modernist palace, a few steps up from their already enviable Brooklyn lodgings. They wander around its vast, glass-walled rooms and its expansive pool, cooing approvingly, feeling comfortable in this newly borrowed station in life. The only sign of trouble in paradise is that Rose loses signal to her tablet on the drive and can’t complete her binge-watch of every episode of Friends. (She doesn’t appear to have noticed that her mom was on the show.)

A huge oil tanker heads straight for a beach as people run for cover in Leave the World Behind Image: Netflix

But during a trip to the beach, something bizarre and portentous happens. A vast oil tanker implacably, serenely plows straight up onto the sand, scattering bathers to either side. It’s a striking moment, the first of a series of startling, surreal visions of a world losing its moorings. Later, we get a pileup of driverless Teslas, a drone crop-dusting a highway with blood-red paper confetti, a flock of flamingos cruising the steaming surface of a heated swimming pool.

Esmail’s eye for these images is bold and confident, and they pop with graphic color as well as thematic unease. Often, at Leave the World Behind’s most spectacular moments, he tilts the camera onto its side, turning the widescreen frame’s width into height in order to capture the full scale of the wrongness.

But at the point when the oil tanker grounds, most of that is yet to come. The cause of the tanker event remains a mystery, because back at the house, the Wi-Fi is out. So is cell phone service and the TV. Without the internet to provide answers, the family shrugs it off. But later that evening, a handsome, well-dressed Black man calling himself G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la Herrold) knock at the door, claiming to be the owners of the house. Amanda instinctively disbelieves them, whether through a knee-jerk reaction against anyone puncturing the fantasy of their getaway, from a place of deeper prejudice, or from fear, since they say they’ve come to the house for refuge because New York City is suffering a massive blackout.

Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke stand on one side of a split frame inside a lit hallway; on the other side, Mahershala Ali and Myha’la Herrold stand on a porch in the dark Image: Netflix

Esmail builds a powerful tension around this intriguing, destabilizing setup. Leave the World Behind is a film of mysteries and horrors, some of which are all the more unnerving for being difficult, or even impossible, to perceive from the characters’ cocooned vantage point. They’ve created the safest of spaces for themselves, and even as the fabric of their lives starts to crumble, the peace of their haven remains relatively undisturbed — by other people, anyway. There are strange sounds, animal apparitions, and one disturbing roadside encounter. Kevin Bacon has a role as a doomsday prepper type with his own castle to defend. But for the most part, the two families are just contending with each other, and with a complete vacuum of information. It’s the apocalypse as a bottle episode.

The point is that the physical comfort and security American (and by extension, Western) society has built around itself now depend on a fragile layer of technology, information, and entertainment that can be ripped through with ease. Leave the World Behind makes that point so emphatically through the sharp exploitation of its yuppie-nightmare setup that Esmail didn’t need to underline it in a series of heavy-handed soliloquies.

That point raises a question — without our internet, our phones, our Friends, who are we? But the movie struggles to find an interesting answer. Racial, sexual, generational, and class fault lines are drawn, but then rapidly scuffed over, almost in embarrassment. The characters reflexively sink into a shared, privileged worldview they can’t seem to let go of.

Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la Herrold, and Mahershala Ali stand and sit around a fancy kitchen looking dejected in Leave the World Behind Image: Netflix

The movie is brilliantly cast, at least. Hawke embodies the blinkered insouciance of progressive intellectuals, Ali has the polish and confidence that money breeds, and Roberts, as a secretly insecure striver trapped between these two worlds, flashes with a brittle testiness. Herrold, meanwhile, challenges all of their assumptions with a fierce, sardonic disillusionment. The script mixes and matches pairings of these characters throughout, but only really flares to life when Roberts and Ali share the screen. They have the most conflict and the most personal chemistry, and one scene where they forget themselves for a second and dance drunkenly to an old R&B jam is a joyful flash of pure movie star charisma.

Leave the World Behind’s paranoid, speculative attitude is definitely reminiscent of Esmail’s Mr. Robot and Homecoming, the desolate sci-fi series through which he and Roberts became unlikely friends and mutual muses. It also echoes the middle third of one of last year’s big Netflix swings, Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, another movie about comfortable people in disaster mode. But in its creation of a hushed, lonely idyll at the end of the world, disturbed by techno-biblical visions of disaster, what it recalls more than anything else is Lost. And like Lost, it’s most assured when it isn’t explaining itself or looking for climax or resolution, neither of which it really finds. Better to just sit back and revel in the perversely enjoyable spectacle of a very bourgeois doom.

Leave the World Behind is streaming on Netflix now.