Oh no! Another doomsday thriller? Yes, but hold on. "Leave the World Behind," now in theaters in advance of its Netflix debut on Dec. 8, comes from "Mr. Robot" creator Sam Esmail, meaning it knows how to make you care while frying your nerves to a frazzle.
As writer and director, Esmail has gathered an all-star cast, including Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali and Kevin Bacon. That got your attention, right? These are phenomenal actors as well as stars. And the producers are led by Barack and Michelle Obama.
Roberts, who also produced, stars as advertising analyst Amanda Sandford, a prickly workaholic who decides it might be a good time for her family to leave their Brooklyn apartment in Park Slope for a weekend getaway at a cushy Hamptons beach house. Just the right Airbnb rental for her laid-back husband Clay (Hawke), a City College professor of English and Media Studies, and their two teens Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie). What's not to like? Nothing, until an oil tanker runs aground on the beach (a truly terrifying scene) and deer start gathering in the woods like the birds in Hitchcock's scare classic.
On a grocery run, Amanda spots a local contractor (Bacon) packing supplies like a survivalist into the back of his truck. The lights have gone out in Manhattan, seen in the distance, and -- horror of horrors -- the Wi-Fi isn't working. That means Rose can't watch the last episode of "Friends," the '90s sitcom she's been streaming obsessively on her iPad.
Then comes the proverbial knock on the door. It's G.H. Scott (Ali) a man in formal wear who says he's the home owner. He's just fled a blackout in Manhattan, where he claims to serve on the board for the Philharmonic. G.H. and his daughter Ruth (a sublimely spikey Myha'la Herrold of TV's "Industry") need shelter, so why not in their own home?
Ruth can sense Amanda's vibe of racist suspicion -- how can these people own this gorgeous mansion? They must be servants! -- but she's hungry for news of her mother on a return flight from Morocco. It's not long before dread seeps in with no plans to leave.
The two families form an uneasy truce. There's no escape. The highway is blocked by a pileup of empty, self-driving Teslas. A frightened Clay, feeling helpless without a working smart phone and GPS, zooms past a woman begging for help. She speaks Spanish, he doesn't.
Archie, in the house pool, stares lustfully at Ruth. That's until his teeth start falling out, just like the plane they all watched tumble out of the sky. What's going on here? Has the apocalypse finally arrived or have terrorists, sensing American vulnerability to cyberattack, laid waste to the land?
Vigilante hackers are nothing new to Esmail, but now the stakes are sky-high. Working from the acclaimed 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam, Esmail steadily holds us in his grip, even if he relies too much on having characters tell us what they're thinking instead of showing us.
Though the novel was shortlisted for the National Book Award, Reddit reviews from so-called real people complained of thin characters, slow pacing and an unresolved ending. Esmail is also guilty of some of those faults, but he's one up on Alam's book, which lacked the film's visual snap and a cast of exceptional actors who hold us in thrall from first scene to last.
Roberts has a tipsy scene in which she and Ali -- nailing a role once intended for Denzel Washington -- share a hot-moves dance to "Too Close," momentarily forgetting their loyalties and prejudices until the realization dawns that family ties may be all they have.
Esmail recently commented that former President Obama gave him notes about his script being too bleak, preferring to see a "common cause" develop between the characters. Who ignores notes about empathy from the former commander in chief? Not Esmail.
And so, this bleak movie about the end of days ends on a sliver of hope, not unlike Rose fangirling over "Friends." As Rose tells Archie, "I care about them." Is it possible that the answer is tucked away in a silly TV theme song? One thing is for sure. After seeing "Leave the World Behind," you'll never hear "I'll Be There for You" the same way again.