Moving Pictures
Dec 13, 2023, 06:30AM

What's with the End of the World?

Leave the World Behind and the profusion of recent disaster and apocalypse movies.

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I thought it was odd to release an apocalyptic movie like Leave the World Behind during the Christmas holiday season but then remembered that last year’s Knock at the Cabin was also a winter movie. Though both feature planes falling from the skies, and people alone in remote vacation sites, Knock was released in late-winter, just before Valentine’s Day this year. But if you go back far enough, you can find Christmas-time disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), or more recently, the world-ending Don't Look Up, released two years ago on Christmas Eve. People remember Die Hard (1988) as a Christmas movie, and though its setting is an office Christmas party, all the Die Hard movies were summer releases. Leave the World Behind gives you something from all of these—giant malfunctioning ships, burning buildings, falling planes.

But it won’t give you a reason why. At one point slightly shadowy Wall Street money manager G.H. Short (Mahershala Ali) tells Clay Sandford (Ethan Hawke), the “media studies” professor whose family is Airbnbing Short’s vacation beach home for the weekend, what may be going on when the internet, cable, and phones go out, and highway ramps are blocked by self-crashing, self-driving electric cars. It could be a type of military invasion, but one with no bombs or armies, just hacking: “If the target nation were dysfunctional enough, it would do the work for you” if you prevented communication and let the polarized native populace attack and blame each other.

There’s a little of that at the vacation beach home. Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts) is suspicious when Short and his daughter (both African-American) show up at the beach manse seeking shelter during the crisis, claiming it’s their house. Daughter Ruth Scott (Myha'la) then interprets all of the Sandford’s worries or questions through a racial lens. Besides the racial polarization, there’s also discomfort between the generations, as Roberts’ character tries to keep her kids from worrying or even knowing what’s going on, and the kids in turn become bratty, going through screen-time withdrawal, complaining that the TV doesn’t work. Daughter Rose Sanford is played by the odd-looking Farrah Mackenzie, whose strangely round and almost inhuman face prevents viewer empathy. Rose spends much of the movie whining that the internet went out while she was binge watching Friends and was just up to the series finale “The Last One.” Rose worries she’ll never see the last episode of her show; Ruth worries she’ll never again see her mom, who was on a plane flying back to the United State.

Though she seems shallow Rose does say that she likes Friends because it’s the only thing that makes her happy. And Friends is about a kind of community or chosen family. In the few days in which Leave happens, some of the characters dance, make cocktails, get drunk, almost commit adultery, swim and hike. And drink coffee, but the latter only by serially visiting the kitchen and having a discussion with whomever is still there. At no point do they ever all sit down and have a meal together. And one presumes that before the crisis at any meals, someone was always on a cell or iPad, not really present. Perhaps we’re not only polarized as a nation, in our own families as well.

We don’t find out whether Ruth ever sees her mom. We don’t ever learn who’s behind the crisis. Like the Shorts and the Sandfords, we’re cut off.


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