If cyberattacks and storms are any indication, writer-director Sam Esmail’s “Leave the World Behind” looks to expand upon the more lo-fi terrors of Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel of the same name.
That’s surely helped by a big budget, as this is a Netflix production from the Obamas’ Higher Ground productions banner, plus major star backing: Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Kevin Bacon, plus “Industry” breakout actress Myha’la Herrold. In the book, an Airbnb vacation goes awry when an unknown apocalyptic event seems to shutter the world around the core characters.
Amanda (Julia Roberts) and her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke), rent a luxurious home for the weekend with their kids, Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie). Their vacation is soon upended when two strangers — G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la) — arrive in the night, bearing news of a mysterious cyberattack and seeking refuge in the house they claim is theirs. The two families reckon with a looming disaster that grows more terrifying by the minute, forcing everyone to come to terms with their places in a collapsing world.
The novel was published in October 2020, smack dab in the pandemic, and had eerie implications for a disastrous future. This is Esmail’s first feature since the 2014 cosmic rom-com “Comet,” as he’s since worked in TV as an executive producer, from “Gaslit” to “Angelyne” and “The Resort.”
“The disaster genre is one of my favorite genres, and the trick that we did in this film that differs from most disaster films is that in that genre, the focus—the priority of the storytelling—is on the set pieces,” Esmail told Vanity Fair. “It’s on the spectacle of whatever the disaster might be for that story, and the characters were secondary to that. They’re more there to react and become the audience avatar. What I think Rumaan did so well in the novel, and what I tried to capture in the film is to invert that and make the focus be on the characters, and their reaction. The spectacle of the disaster is secondary and off in the distance.”
“Leave the World Behind” opens in theaters on November 22 before debuting on the Netflix streaming platform December 8. It will also open AFI Fest in Los Angeles on October 25.