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"Leave The World Behind" 4K Review

 It's Prestige Movie Season which means Netflix is putting its big awards bait movies in theaters for brief runs before bringing them home to streaming. This week's arrival is the adaptation of a 2020 novel Leave The World Behind starring Oscar winners Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali, Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke, and Kevin Bacon in a film written and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail. So prestige. Much stars. Wow.

Roberts is Amanda, a brittle misanthropic advertising exec who wakes up her college professor husband Clay (Hawke) one morning with news that she'd booked a rental of a luxurious home out on Long Island for them and their two kids - 16-year-old Archie (Charlie Evans, who looks like a more butch Timothee Chalamet) and 13-year-old Rose (Farrah Mackenzie). They head out and arrive and settle in before going to the beach where their sun and sand are interrupted by a massive oil tanker running aground right where they were sitting.

 Already rattled by that, the WiFi and cable TV at the house goes down and there's no cell service which really irritates Rose because she's been binging Friends and was about to watch the final episode and can't wait to learn what happens. (She gets off the plane, kid. SPOILER ALERT!) With little else to do, the kids turn in while their parents stay up when there's a knock at the door.

They find a talk black man in a tuxedo and a young woman in an evening dress and they claim they're G.H. (Ali), the owner of the house and his daughter, Ruth (Myha'la). They were in NYC for a Philharmonic concert, but there was a blackout and with G.H. unable to climb 14 floors of stairs to their Park Avenue Manhattan home, they decided to come to their Long Island place. Amanda is extremely suspicious, but with no way to bring up their emails and G.H. conveniently having left his wallet in his checked coat, there's no proof of their identity. (More on this later.)  Ultimately, Amanda and Clay agree to let these folks stay in their own home, down in the basement in-law suite, after G.H. give them $1000 cash refund on their rental.

 The next day, there is still no communication with the outside world so Clay tries to go into town to get a newspaper and see if anyone knows anything while G.H. goes to a neighbor's a couple of miles away to see what they know and what they find is confusion and horror involving leaflet-dropping drones and crashing passenger planes. Meanwhile back at the ranch, animals are acting very weird and deafeningly loud noises which crack windows and tablet screen increase the feeling of unease.

While Leave The World Behind seems to be a decent premise (more on that later as well), its failing is due to too few details stretched out over a way too long runtime (2h 21m) with so many superfluous scenes and ultimately no point it's trying to make. Is it about racism as the wealthy white couple (who can afford $2000+ for a weekend lark) is suspicious of the even richer black people? Is it about our dependence on technology for everything and how the moment the system crashes, we can't survive such primitive lives like they were way back in, say 1995? Is it about some evil people triggering societal collapse for power? Is it about how we mistreat the environment? All or none of the above or somewhere in between?

The problems begin with Esmail's script. There are too many scenes which could've been cut without being missed beginning with an encounter Clay has with a Mexican woman who doesn't speak English and we spend a couple of minutes with her frantically speaking to his uncomprehending ears before he drives away. A scene where Archie tries to freak out Rose with the proposal someone was watching her room from a shed in the woods is more suited for a younger child and not a 13-year-old who watches The West Wing but "only the Aaron Sorkin seasons." And the scene where Amanda, who was being nasty to G.H. minutes before, and he dance to an R&B song culminating in their having to proclaim they love their spouses so this moment couldn't go on is both telegraphed and out of nowhere. 

He never seems to want to land on a firm point either. With the film executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, you'd expect some heavy-handed moralizing about how extremely wealthy black people are the real victims here, but Esmail limits the race-baiting to some snark from Ruth. There's an irony that the one character the audience is supposed to see as a someone to look down on, G.H.'s contractor, Danny (Kevin Bacon), a Doomsday prepper stereotype who probably votes for not Democrats is the one they run to for help since he's exactly one of "those people" who can handle the end of the world. 

But even more basically, it does what The Walking Dead always did to drag out tension and distrust which is to have people refuse to do or say basic things which would diffuse distrust. How many times on TWD did various groups fear each other because no one bothered to ask, "Hey, what's your story?" Nope, it was always six episodes of glowering and suspicion. Why didn't G.H. just say something like, "In the music room is a wall of vinyl albums and on the leftmost column about eye level, in the Ds, is a copy of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew signed by Miles reading, 'Stay cool, G.H.'" Because we would be denied 10 minutes of Amanda seeming racist or paranoid.

Then there's Esmail's direction. While he uses a few of his Mr. Robot framing tropes, he seems to have watched David Fincher's Panic Room and decided to see how many impossible camera shots he could include as the camera moves through floors, walls and windows with the magic of CGI. When done properly, the viewer probably doesn't even notice the impossibility of a movie camera to pass between railing spindles or a coffee pot handle. 

In Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, there's a 2-1/2 minute scene where the camera follows a minivan careening down a highway while the camera circles around and through the vehicle but the viewer is so riveted by the drama they may not realize what they saw was impossible to film as shown. Here Esmail wants the viewer to notice every time he uses these tricks like when the camera passes through a doorwall then the CGI glass appears then the reflection in the glass. Suddenly you're not paying attention to the story, you're distracted by the technical showoffery.

There's also a question of the geography of the location. Presumably they're in the semi-rural east end of Long Island, but everything seems to be more like farm country where houses are miles apart, except there's another mansion a short walk through the woods. But some shots towards the end make it look like they're just across a river from the City except you'd have to be on the west end where Brooklyn and Queens are. Everything is very close or extremely far at random.

The performances are solid across the small cast with Ali delivering his usually solid work as a man who gradually realizes he may've been more forewarned then he realized. Hawke is OK, but you pity that he's married to Robert's one-note harridan. There's a scene which tries to explain why she hates everyone, but it's like everything else, too little, too who cares?

But the biggest problem is that pretty much the entire scenario was told in two whole fewer hours in a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone entitled "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" (S1E22) which is about a cul-de-sac which experiences a power and communication outage and after a kid says he read in a comic book that aliens may be behind the event and that they send advance scouts who look human to blend into the neighborhood, everyone immediately goes DEFCON 1 and suspects each other with disastrous consequences. It's a very memorable episode and it only takes 25 minutes to tell its tale. (It's on Amazon Freevee if you'd like to watch it.)

 While I can't recommend Leave The World Behind it's probably the highest-scoring Skip It movie I can recall. Nothing about it is especially bad, but it's simply not very good, especially at this runtime. Movies running too damn long is a chronic problem and it really needs to be addressed by Hollyweird. If it was chopped down to 100 minutes, it'd be far more effective by still be four times as long as The Twilight Zone's version.

Technically, the Atmos sound mix (limited to those in the most expensive Premium tier) has some cool overhead effects with planes flying around and the positioning of sounds around the environment. Visually, the Dolby Vision doesn't offer much bright highlights, but helps with shadows and color.

Score: 5/10. Skip it. Watch The Twilight Zone instead.


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