"Leave the World Behind" Filled Me with Dread
And not only of the end of the world.
The #1 movie on Netflix right now is about the end of the world. This is not surprising.
Nearly 40% of Americans say they believe that “we are living in the end times,” 63% expect the impacts of climate change to worsen over their lifetimes, and all of us are living in an age of polycrisis, with seemingly constant upheavals (hey, remember Covid?), war, societal deterioration, global authoritarianism, environmental spirals, techno-dystopias, and a national mental health crisis.
And while everyone blames other people for the bad stuff that’s about to happen, we are united in believing that it is about to happen. The end of the world brings people together.
Leave the World Behind, which stars Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali, and Julia Roberts and is the creation of Mr. Robot’s auteur, Sam Esmail based on the book Rumaan Alam, captures this moment and its eerie, unsettling dread. While it is full of plot holes and is ultimately an ethical-political mess, its rendering of this dread is pitch-perfect. In many ways, it is the movie of 2023.
Here’s a spoiler-free summary. The film begins with Hawke and Roberts as two white Gen-Xers living in Brooklyn with plenty of first-world problems: ennui, alienated kids, midlife crises. (Full disclosure, until last year, I was a white Gen-Xer living in Brooklyn, so their predicament hits close to home.) Roberts books an Airbnb on the south shore of Long Island, and off they go.
But things get weird. An oil tanker, seemingly without a captain, crashes into the beach. Phone and internet services go down. A mysterious stranger (Ali) and his daughter (played by Myha’la Herrold) arrive at the Airbnb, claiming to live there, but something seems off. Eventually, Teslas on autopilot crash into each other (don’t worry: Elon has said this can’t happen), deer menace ominously, a maybe-psychic kid gets the willies, flamingos land in the swimming pool, flyers saying ‘Death to America’ in Arabic are dropped from the sky… you get the idea.
I’m teasing a little here, but Leave ruined my sleep two nights ago, because it so effectively captures the anxieties of our present moment, in which the weird events of the film’s plot hardly seem farfetched. Everything seems slightly off nowadays, doesn’t it? We think to ourselves, this could totally happen. And we are vulnerable.
I come to works like this with an unusual background, which is that I’ve studied apocalyptic and messianic movements for decades, and even wrote a dissertation and then a book about one of them, the 18th century heresy led by a Jewish heretic named Jacob Frank. In many ways, Frank’s theology was original and startling, but in some ways, his message was conventional: the end of the world is nigh, a great war is about to take place, and while at the end of it, the good guys (Frank’s sect) will come out ahead, that will only take place after extended periods of death and devastation.
This is the same plot of both widespread messianic beliefs – the Second Coming, the Mahdi – and fringe ones, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ prophecy that the world as we know it was going to end in 1975, or the New Age belief that it was going to end (or actually did end and was replaced by a simulation) in 2012. In fact, it’s always been five minutes to midnight: in European and American history alone, large swaths of the population believed that the world was about to end in the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Early Christianity clearly believed that the apocalypse was to take place in the very near future; it’s likely that the number 666 refers numerologically to Roman Emperor Nero.
It’s possible that the prevalence of this belief reflects human beings’ dread of our own mortality. All of us, after all, face the looming knowledge that are own world will come to an end – even though a majority of us believe that our lives will continue in some form afterward. What is certainly true is that the end of the world has always been nigh.
And yet… I have to admit that it seems especially nigh nowadays. After all, now we have objective evidence: the polycrisis, some of the features of which I listed above; but also the way the entire world seemed totally unprepared for the Covid-19 pandemic; the extent of polarization domestically and internationally; the doomsday, and even not doomsday but still terrible, reality of the climate crisis. The frogs are dying, the bees are dying, the world is physically falling apart.
I know, as a scholar, that apocalypticism is a perennial feature of human civilization. I also know that, in many ways, now is the best time to be alive, with longer life expectancy and less violence than ever before in human history. And yet, the end of the world does keep me awake at night. As my frienddiscusses each week on her Substack, the dread of the climate crisis is particularly acute for those of us with young children; we wonder if we should even have brought them into this world.
This apocalyptic thinking has direct political consequences. That 40% of Americans who think the end is nigh? It includes over three-quarters of evangelicals — a majority of the Trump base. They vote for a dangerous, disruptive nihilist in part because, for them, the world is already ending anyway. Trump is just the divinely appointed horseman of the apocalypse.
And on the left, doomsday thinking about climate change — by which I mean the belief that human civilization itself is doomed, which even the worst Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change projections do not support — often leads to resignation or utopianism, to dropping out of conventional politics and focusing only on one’s own actions, and to crushing despair. The climate crisis will indeed be terrible, and take millions of lives, but there’s a difference between terror and world-ending, and when a potential voter, change agent, and activist concludes that there’s nothing to be done, they become part of the problem.
Apocalyptic thinking, in other words, is political.
Which is why the flaws of Leave the World Behind became infuriating to me. Spoilers follow.
The film never determines exactly What Happened, but in general, the United States is subjected to a coordinated attack (hacking, satellite attacks, ‘Havana Syndrome’ type radiation and sound) focused on disabling communications and other technology while also driving many people mad. The attack isn’t a frontal war, like a nuclear exchange. Rather, some enemy -- it's unclear whether it’s a coalition of our enemies, a single enemy uniting them, or some conspiracy that stands to benefit by manipulating the whole thing – has recognized that we will destroy ourselves if we’re scared and isolated enough. So they pull all the plugs, and that’s exactly what we do. By the end, we’ve nuked ourselves.
That public collapse is reflected in the private conflicts of the two families in the film, who are divided by mutual racial suspicion. Roberts’s character is skeptical of Ali’s claims to be the owner of the house in part because he is Black, and Herrold’s mistrusts Roberts because she is white. Here’s where conservative critics of the film have harped on the facts that it was produced by the Obama family’s production company, that the white people are stupid while the Black ones are smart, and that Ali’s character is, at first, objectively shifty – somehow he has no ID, which makes no sense at all, and there are no bills or photos or belongings lying around the house that he could easily use to provide his identity – but suddenly flips to become the film’s paragon of reason and compassion, making Roberts and Hawke out to be dumb racists.
That is all true; the racial conflict of the film is absurdly contrived and based on a host of plot holes (there are plenty of those). But the film’s real offense is the opposite of what these critics have alleged: it’s that the people actually undermining democracy, i.e. MAGA Trumpist nationalists – get a complete pass. In the real world, this heavily armed, enraged, and conspiracy-minded segment of the population is the most likely to cause the destruction of American democracy. But in the film, you’d think that what’s tearing America apart is the conflict between white liberals and Black left-of-liberals. The one MAGA-like character in the film is a flag-waving, rural-dwelling white survivalist played by, ding, Kevin Bacon, and he turns out to be more of a survivalist-prepper observer of American decline, rather than someone who helped bring it about.
Especially considering the film was produced by the Obamas, that is a profound abdication of reality. So is Bacon’s character’s ultimate quasi-redemption (he’s not racist, he knows how to do stuff, and he’s persuaded to help our hapless liberal hero who abases himself before him) and his complete lack of responsibility for any of the “divisions” that have made America so vulnerable.
Indeed, the film itself dips into conspiratorial waters, alleging that some shadowy elites were either behind the attack, or are aware that it was about to happen. This is far-right propaganda, not lefty propaganda; all that’s missing is the letter Q, or the names Rothschild and Soros.
In short, Leave the World Behind brilliantly taps into the universal dread of the end of the world, but yokes it to a highly problematic set of right-wing conspiracy theories and dreams. Then again, maybe I’m just being “polarizing.”
Being an Obama production, Leave the World Behind doesn’t leave hope behind. At the end of the film, the two families are about to converge on a gigantic bunker in the basement of a mansion, stocked by a prepper one-percenter with everything they’ll need to survive the apocalypse, right down to Friends DVDs. We’re meant, I think, to hope that these two families will learn to get along and ride out the nuclear apocalypse together, buoyed by human love and compassion (which Friends, we are told, has something to do with).
But I was left with dread, not hope. Not only the dread of the looming end of the world, which the film so aptly depicted, but an additional dread of how that fear can be so easily manipulated, distorted, and even, consciously or not, weaponized.
Hello readers! Thanks for your shares, comments, stacks, mentions, forwards, and, of course, subscriptions. I’m already shifting into my annual December quasi-hibernation: heading off to teach a five-day silent meditation retreat next week, doing a little less writing and socialing, cozying up by the fire, doing various podcasts and other from-home stuff for the book. With many of our hearts still aching from the war and the polycrisis, I hope you’re able to find some warmth as the season changes this week. - Jay
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