Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Review: Leave the World Behind

Obama is now my second least favorite living ex-President.

I was really, really excited for this movie. Amazing cast, everything about it screamed innovative, original, captivating thriller. The good news is, for like 65% of the movie, that's what we get. The rest, though... ooof. I've preached from my little soapbox that it is far more of a crime to be mediocre than outright bad, and never has that been more true than with Sam Esmail's adaption of Rumaan Alam's novel, Leave the World Behind. Because I have more taglines than the crack about the Obama's XP cred, we're going to break this into parts, like the film itself:

Part I: The Good

Clever taglines come later. For now, I want to address the good parts of this movie - which are, in fact, plentiful, but that's the twist in this review, it actually actually works against the film, because of the massive letdown to come. 

First and foremost: Please let Esmail just... be behind a camera forever. His directing and tone in this are amazing. I believe he will refine the weak parts of his feature-length work, but his use of angles, movement and score are nothing short of brilliant. 

I would watch Mahershala Ali read a phone book (note to young people: a phone book is... never mind. I would watch him read a random Wikipedia page). He, as usual, dominates every scene he is in, with his perpetually-composed demeanor, even tones, and overwhelming presence, which only add to his scenes. Ethan Hawk is his usual fantastic self, and I need to watch Predestination as a palate cleanser. 

Kevin Bacon gets a title card, and is in the movie for ten minutes. WHY

Part II: Let's Talk About Talking About Things

This is a long movie. I don't care about long, I care about runtime suiting the story. There are a lot of "slow" parts that serve the story very, very well, and build tension and intrigue. 

The opening scene is not one of them. 

Instead, we get Clay (Ethan Hawke) slowly waking up, as wife Amanda (Julia Roberts) (who I would have listed up there in "good", because she was fine, but her character...) tells him, in a painfully long scene, that:
  • She rented them a house in a small town for the weekend, spur-of-the moment
  • She likes the business of the city, but hates people (she says this several times in the movie. This is never reflected in her actions)
  • Work is stressful (if your characters say "as you know", find a different way to say it)
  • They have kids.
This scene should not exist. Instead, we should pan down from the cool establishing space shot, to NYC, to a road out, to them in the car. Dad says "we needed this" while looking at the house on his phone (with only the name of the lister shown), mom agrees with a comment about how she feels less stressed already, we see the whole family in the car, and the whole thing takes 30 seconds. 

We actually basically get that scene anyway with the car ride, as Amanda has another exposition-heavy phone conversations, and we meet the kids, playing on tablets in the back seat.

If the movie had stuck the landing, this would be fine. Exposition dumps are needed sometimes, or come across ham-fisted. But Amanda serves as a combination of our Cortana, ignorant of a lot of things, giving us these info dumps (or reasons for someone else to), and simultaneously the smartest man in the room. We are reminded of this by comments about what a tech wiz she is and things like that. We never see her do anything like this, though. So we know she is super smart, strong and capable, even though she mostly sleepwalks through the plot as a vehicle for other characters to develop (or explain things to us).

Circling back to her other trait that we are told about - she hates people. She expresses this by:
  • Taking her family on a nice weekend getaway when they all seem to need it
  • Being suspicious of the people who show up completely unannounced in the middle of the night and can't prove who they are (more on this in the next section)
  • Trying to protect her family as the world is ostensibly ending
That's it! It's so goddamn unearned that it's comical. When it gets circled back to in the third act, I had forgotten she had even made that comment, because it's so irrelevant to her character. You live in New York and wanted to get away for a few days, not went full Falling Down. 

This is how the movie communicates things to us.

Part III: Applying Horror Movie Logic to Horrific Situations

So our Empty Vessels of Exposition protagonists are enjoying their break from the city, kids are in bed, and Amanda and Clay are drinking wine and playing jenga. Before I talk about the next thing, I want to voice my complaint (as long as I am complaining) about a global trend in these types of movies - that is, ones with families that aren't comedies. Families come in two flavors:
  1. Sickeningly perfect
  2. Overwhelmingly dysfunctional
There's no in between. We get #1 in this picture, and hear about their flaws - distaste for humanity, stress over jobs, kids play games and are obsessed with Friends (this is a real plot point), but again, none of these things are actual problems for the characters. We are told they are - in a movie - but we never see it. It definitely goes out of it's way to show us that it's a happy family, then remembers to inject them with humanity, so (for example), the brother will pick on his little sister, and then everything is fine again.

Just... have normal families, please.

Anyway, they are surprised by a knock at the door, and after discussing how to defend themselves, answer it find people claiming to be the owners of the house. We get some more exposition about how G.H. is George (Mahershala Ali) on the emails with Amanda. He and his daughter (Myha'la) do everything in their power to act as suspiciously as possible, thus showing that there is no way they are who they say they are.

But, twist! They are! There's no secret! They just got wind while they were in the city from G.H.'s client that something was going down, so they came home. But for the sake of tension, he doesn't have any ID on him, because of course he doesn't. That way we get Amanda not trusting them, Clay being super chill about it, and eventually they all sort of settle into getting along. 

Wait, I forgot to talk about the ship. So did they! Yeah, a goddamn oil tanker crashed on the beach the day before, while they were all enjoying their vacation, and that's apparently not causing anyone concern. So as weirder and weirder things happen, they just... go about life? Chill by the pool, let the kids roam way outside of eyesight. And when random suspicious people show up, with more weird things happening, the reason Clay and Amanda give for not mentioning it is that it would confirm something big is happening.

Ignorance is bliss.

Part IV: The One Where Dean Gets Really Yelly

I want to take a moment before I lose my mind again, and remind y'all that for a really, really good portion of this, I really, really, really liked this movie. A little exposition heavy, but the first two acts were so damn good that I was willing to overlook a few flaws. I'm pulling out all the stops for this, so if you don't want the (godawful) ending spoiled, go watch it and come back later. If you're just reveling in reading along as I go insane, here's what you need to know going into the third act:
  • G.H. and daughter are who they say they are. It is their house. 
  • G.H. is a finance guy for ultra-rich people. He has a client/buddy that goes and hangs out with the "cabal of evil", which is a joke, because the really scary thing is no one is actually pulling the strings of international affairs. We get this in another Amanda-driven exposition dump.
  • Oh, yeah, he is married, and his wife is on a flight back from Morocco, and is probably dead, because all navigation satellites are disabled and planes are falling from the sky, LOST-style. This does not affect him at all emotionally except for the scene we learn this.
  • Animals are being weird.
  • There's a weird noise.
  • All freeways etc are jammed up with smart cars gone rogue, I, Robot-style, and just mashing into each other (who had "Elon Musk is behind the apocalypse"? Everyone? Okay, carry on), so they can't go anywhere.
  • The daughter is obsessed with the show Friends, and was watching the finale when all internet went out, and she needs to see how that show ends.
  • Clay tried to go into town for a newspaper to see what is going on, got lost, because we are useless without GPS, and a bunch of flyers in Arabic were dropped from a drone.
  • The son's teeth start falling out
  • They still manage to have a glass of wine/smoke some weed and let the kids roam through all of this.
I didn't like this for reasons I am about to hammer on, but I always have to make allowance for the possibility of me being an idiot. So I turn to google, and read interviews with the author. And this is the problem with setting up a premise this tense: you better have a good goddamn explanation.

Guess what?

They don't.

Not the writer, not the director could explain what happens next. They try to play it off as if it's creative and original, but it's a goddamn cop out. 

G.H. and Clay go to visit Kevin Bacon to get medicine for the son (which he has?!), who is a doomsday prepper who also lives in an adorable, well-maintained home in possibly the most incongruent character in cinematic history. Conveniently, he has all the answers G.H. doesn't, and we find out that "Koreans, or maybe Chinese" have dropped similar flyers on the west coast, and G.H. explains to us that 'maybe a bunch of America's enemies got together', because this is apparently a ground-level James Bond movie. Kevin Bacon also explains, like a video-game NPC, that some rich folk have a bunker, and probably aren't there. Why Kevin Bacon is not in the bunker is left to our imagination (in my version, he is an NPC and can't move from where he is).

G.H. and Clay have a conversation about trust, Amanda and Ruth are in the woods and scare off a bunch of deer who were... standing there, kind of menacingly? They have the aforementioned conversation about Amanda hating people.

The daughter finds the rich people's bunker (EVERY HOUSE IN THE AREA IS MASSIVE AND NICE AND IT'S MADE VERY CLEAR THEY ARE ALL RICH), which has a Friends DVD, and she watches her finale.

That's it. Nothing is earned, just told to us. The only character with any sort of motivation that tracks is the daughter's quest to watch the Friends finale, which, if they had told the whole movie through her eyes, would have been a great tongue in cheek thriller, a la Over the Garden Wall. Instead, we get this dreary nonsense that only would have been worse if the endless exposition was literal voice over - but that barely would have made a difference. Alam and Esmail painted themselves into a corner by having a great premise, told from the ground level, but couldn't get outside of that to show us what is going on - even when they functionally break the fourth wall by having Clay get out of the car, they one time the radio works, so we can hear something that isn't a character just speculating. 

The most egregious failing is that Steven King in The Mist, and 28 Days Later managed to execute in that arena without restoring to cop outs, and the only twist we get is what a letdown it ends up being. They could have gone several ways with it, given the characters agency and motivation and had a conclusion that was satisfying - even if it was tragic. Instead, they did the laziest thing imaginable and tried to pretend it was clever.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 5/10 - The good is really good, and honestly the bad could be worse. But it took what could be a classic and made it forgettable. 


+1 for a brilliant score
+1 for moments of real tension


-1 for endless exposition
-3 for the ending

Conclusion: 3/10. Just bad. 

Dean Smith-Richard is the author of 3204AD, loves to cook, play baseball, and is way too much of a craft beer nerd. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, and likes the rain, thank you very much.