Leave the World Behind: a critique of our tech-obsessed culture

The 2023 apocalyptic thriller ‘Leave the World Behind,’ based on the novel by Rumaan Alam, tells the story of life during a catastrophic cyber attack and its devastating effects on an already collapsing nation.

Sam Esmail subverts the typical thriller genre by plunging us into a world where the only threat is ourselves.

We are forced to acknowledge our main characters in the opening scene, which shows Amanda (Julia Roberts) frantically packing while her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) is asleep in bed.

Amanda explains that she has booked a vacation home for the family to get away and “leave the world behind.”

In the car, the family is shown brandishing phones, iPads, and other tech – Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) is notably obsessed with the series ‘Friends’ and Archie (Charlie Evans) is seemingly obsessed with girls his age.

The film constantly reminds the viewer of the integral role that technology plays in our lives and nods to the idea that we’d be entirely lost without it.

Once at the house, the family is seen interacting with the space, instantly searching for tech that can keep them occupied.

Image by Netflix

The next scene places the family at the beach, where a large ship is seen crashing onto the shore.

This event leaves the young, desensitized children unscathed but fills the adults with an ominous feeling that something is deeply wrong.

Leave the World Behind works to destablize the audience with its dynamic and disorienting shots representing the lack of agency and control that the characters have over their lives.

The camera almost acts as a seventh character, an agent of chaos that invades the lives of these individuals.

The various birds-eye perspectives we see throughout the film hint at the idea of Big Brother, an evil digital eye that watches over all of us.

We eventually meet two new pivotal characters, G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and Ruth (Myha’la), who turn up at the rented house unannounced.

The families have an awkward standoff where no one is able to communicate effectively.

G.H. recalls the analog days by stating that if Amanda and G.H. had spoken on the phone, she would have been able to recognize his voice.

As these strangers face off, it’s apparent that the lack of communication within this film is a stark reflection of our inability to communicate and connect with one another in the real world.

This trope is referenced a second time in the film via an interaction between Clay and an unknown Spanish woman, where Clay is unable to communicate with her due to a language barrier.

G.H. and his daughter Ruth come bearing cryptic news of a cyberattack that has struck the nation, and each family soon grapples with the idea that nothing is as it seems and will never be as it was.

As the plot unfolds, we become aware that cyber warfare is playing out across the nation, with strange, unexplained noises rendering the characters immobile.

This “sonic boom,” as Archie hypothesizes, causes the teen's teeth to fall out of his gums in a shocking moment that adds to the foreboding uncertainty that pervades the film.

Esmail introduces real threat for the first time in the film as the teen plucks his rotting teeth from his gums.

Up until this point, there has only been a perceived threat, as nothing has indicated that these characters are in real danger caused by external forces.

Only their devices have been rendered useless due to the lack of internet connection.

But maybe that is a real threat to modern society in the twenty-first century.

However, as G.H. hunts for signs of life, he comes across the body of a pilot and witnesses a plane nosedive into the sea.

Demonstrating that no industry, service, or individual is immune from a cyberattack.

Image by Netflix

This sentiment is further explored throughout the plot when Amanda, Clay, and their children prepare to flee to New Jersey, where they come across a graveyard of Teslas that have been hacked and created a pileup on a highway.

We have witnessed some electric vehicles already faltering as Waymo, the self-driving ride-hailing service, recalled 444 of its vehicles over a software error after two minor collisions.

These services are also vulnerable, which makes the rogue Teslas in Leave the World Behind all the more possible.

In a final ditch effort to find Archie medicine and try to make sense of what’s going on, G.H. suggests that the men go and ask his neighbor for help.

They are met with a hostile Danny (Kevin Bacon) who recites a monologue on protecting his own and hypothesizes that “the Koreans” are behind the cyberattack.

There are racist undertones throughout the movie, starting with Amanda’s distrust of G.H. and his daughter Ruth.

Demonstrating that the collapse of the United States starts with the American people are their blatant distrust of one another.

Perhaps nodding to our collective distrust being fueled by the media we consume, which aims to mislead us into believing that the divide between one another is much bigger than it is.

As the movie comes to a close, G.H. reveals his theory based on insider knowledge that the US is being subjected to a three-stage coup that involves the country destroying itself from within.

The film ends with Ruth and Amanda on the hunt to find Rose, who has ventured out into the wilderness.

As they search for the missing girl, they observe the bombing of various areas of New York City.

While Amanda and Ruth fend off omniscient deer that play a large role in creating this foreboding and eerie feeling throughout the film, Rose has found a bunker in which she finds a DVD of the final episode of Friends.

The movie ends, leaving the viewer with the iconic Friend’s soundtrack as the credits role.

Leave the World Behind is a commentary on our inability to disconnect from technology and sit with ourselves.

If we are left to our own devices, chances are we will end up destroying what we have in an instant.

Through cinematography, dialogue, and narrative, we are reminded that we are not in charge of our futures and that our reliance on technology is a vice that we all share.

Technology can fail us, nothing is immune to cyberattacks, and all we can “hope for is the heads up” when confronted with the end of the world.

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