Leave the World Behind is one of the best Netflix movies of the year

mahershala ali, julia roberts, leave the world behind
Leave the World Behind is a must-watch on NetflixNetflix

Netflix has had original hits scattered through 2023 from The Strays to We Cloned Tyrone, but the streamer is ending the year particularly strongly.

Before Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget and Maestro land later this month, Leave the World Behind adds its name to the list of best Netflix movies of the year. Adapting from the bestselling novel of the same name, Sam Esmail turns the story into a gripping and intense apocalyptic thriller.

Esmail has altered certain elements of the book, but the setup remains the same. Amanda (Julia Roberts) and her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) rent a luxury home for the weekend with their children, only for the owners – GH (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha'la) – to show up and ask to stay the night.

It's no ordinary nigh, as GH and Ruth warn the family of blackouts in the city, while the TV news reports talk of a cyber attack before mysteriously cutting out. But what is really going on, and who can anybody trust?

mahershala ali, myhala, farrah mackenzie, julia roberts, leave the world behind

As well as reuniting with his Homecoming star Julia Roberts, Leave the World Behind sees Sam Esmail bring back a lot of his creative team behind the scenes. It means that if you've seen Homecoming or Mr Robot, you'll know exactly what you're in for.

You'll get familiar themes from Esmail's work, such as the dangers of technology (or rather, the people using it), and also probably not all the answers to all the mysteries that Esmail poses. It's also delivered with Esmail's distinctive offbeat style, including unusual framing choices and an ominous score that acts sometimes as its own jump scare.

"Tone is everything... if the tone is there, that to me is key in locking an audience into an emotional journey," Esmail said in the production notes for the movie, which gives you a sense of his approach. He might not be interested in the answers to the wider mystery, but Esmail does make sure the movie has a distinct tone that will keep you hooked.

Too many Netflix movies are identikit copies of one another, especially when it comes to the streamer's blockbusters. Leave the World Behind has actual character and it might not be for everybody, especially as Esmail drip-feeds the apocalypse, but you could never accuse it of being bland.

myhala herrold, mahershala ali, ethan hawke, julia roberts, leave the world behind

It helps too that Esmail has four excellent performances to build his chamber piece on. Large sections of the movie are various combinations of Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali and Myha'la chatting about what's happening, covering weighty themes like unconscious bias, wealth inequality and more.

This isn't an issues movie, but it is Esmail's take on a disaster movie so it was never going to be a Roland Emmerich-style disaster epic. He ensures the quieter moments are as gripping as the apocalypse, especially as shifting GH and Ruth to a father-daughter pairing instead of an older Black couple, adds a compelling generational friction to Ruth and Amanda's relationship.

It's not to say that Esmail is afraid to get his apocalypse on. Each part of the movie (which is split into five parts) has a notable set piece, from a horrifying plane crash to a multi-Tesla pile-up that is probably Elon Musk's worst nightmare. They're impactful as they're not overused, and all the more chilling as they're never really explained.

That could well frustrate some people, but like the novel it's based on, the movie does not offer any easy answers. For those willing to go along with it though, Leave the World Behind is a gripping, unique and superbly performed thriller.

5 stars
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Leave the World Behind is available to watch now on Netflix.

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