The ending of Sam Esmail’s cyber thriller Leave The World Behind has left some viewers perplexed. But might 90s sitcom Friends help explain its true, dark meaning?
NB: The following contains spoilers for Leave The World Behind.
Film studios are often unnerved by ambiguity, particularly when it comes to endings. But Netflix, to its credit, gave writer-director Sam Esmail the creative latitude to have his apocalyptic cyber thriller Leave The World Behind end on a deliciously off-beat note.
If you’ve seen the film – based on the novel of the same name by Rumaan Alam – you’ll know the set-up: middle-class New York couple Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay (Ethan Hawke) take a hastily-arranged vacation to a sleekly modern house on the city’s leafy outskirts. There, they become slowly aware that the wider world is falling apart; a gigantic ship beaches itself metres from where they sunbathe one morning. Hours later, the owners of the house Amanda and Clay have rented, GH (Mahershala Ali) and daughter Ruth (Myha’la) make an unexpected appearance, saying that New York is in the middle of a blackout.
As Esmail’s tale gradually unspools, the tone becomes ever more apocalyptic. Animals behave strangely; ear-splitting sounds leave the families in agony, and even appear to wreak havoc on human teeth. Then comes that dramatic final reel: GH theorises about a possible military insurrection, and that the US might be in the grip of a cataclysmic civil war. It’s a thought underlined by a wide shot of bombs – perhaps nuclear – going off across Manhattan.
In a film often laced with jet black comedy, one of the common refrains is a young girl’s obsession with the 90s sitcom, Friends. Amanda and Clay’s daughter, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) constantly fusses about watching the final episode and knowing how the series ends. In fact, before things truly hit the fan around the midpoint, Rose seems more perplexed that her iPad won’t connect to the internet than the possibility of societal collapse.
Then comes that zinger of an ending: Rose descends into the safety of a nuclear bunker, has a little look around, and to her wonderment, discovers a vast library of DVDs from the 1990s and 2000s. Her eyes scan the spines on the shelves, and she finds what she’s looking for: the disc that contains the Friends season finale she’s been desperate to see all along. Smiling, Rose puts the disc in the player and watches the show as – presumably – the world outside falls apart.
It’s an ending that has left both critics and viewers somewhat divided, and in a November interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Esmail said he knew before the film was released that its ambiguity would split opinion.
“We knew going into this that the ending was going to be polarizing, but we did not want to pull punches on it, Esmail said, adding that he didn’t want to give the film the ending commonly seen in a conventional disaster movie. “The expectation is at the end of these films, your cast of characters overcomes the disaster and the world reverts back to some sane semblance of normalcy. I knew that I wasn’t going to do that.”
Unusual though Leave The World Behind’s ending is, it’s still in keeping with the story’s technological theme. Throughout, we’re reminded of how reliant its characters are on their smartphones and sat-navs, and how lost they are without the means to communicate and navigate their way around. At the same time, we’re also reminded of how isolated the characters are from one another and how paranoid they’ve become.
Technology, the film implies, has both revolutionised the way we live and left us infantilised and even vulnerable. That Clay becomes immediately lost without his sat-nav is a foreshadowing of GH’s speech later in the film: that our reliance on technology has left us open to manipulation and attack. All it takes is a small push from an aggressor – whether from at home or abroad – to cause the whole house of cards to collapse.
“If the target nation was dysfunctional enough, it would in essence do the work for you,” GH says. “Whoever started this wants us to finish it.”
That a bovine, distracted nation might sleepwalk into civil war recalls Neil Postman’s prescient 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business. It was written long before the widespread use of the internet or mobile phones, but it compellingly argued that a future dystopia would more closely resemble Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than the violently authoritarian one described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Huxley imagined a future where the populace is kept blissfully at bay through entertainment, sex and a state-approved drug called Soma. In Amusing Ourselves To Death, Postman argued that TV and film was our real-world Soma – a sentiment that could equally apply to our reliance on smartphones and social media.
“When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” Postman wrote, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
It’s a sentence that sounds remarkably close to GH’s monologue about a pacified, tech-addicted society on the cusp of its own culture death.
Viewed this way, Leave The World Behind’s final scene takes on an even darker hue. That the youngest character in the story has found refuge might seem like a happy ending of sorts – the older generations are tearing themselves apart outside, but at least Rose has a chance of survival. But the discovery of the DVD library only serves as a further reminder of Postman’s despairing worldview: Rose is as addicted to trivial, mind-numbing entertainment as the rest of us, and so the film ends with her alone in the bunker, contentedly amusing herself to death.
Where Alam’s source novel ended on at least a shred of hope – Rose is described as collecting together some supplies from the bunker’s larder. Esmail’s ending, on the other hand, is much darker and more sardonic. The use of the Friends theme tune – The Rembrandts’ I’ll Be There For You – recalls Stanley Kubrick’s use of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again at the end of the similarly apocalyptic Dr Strangelove.
The worst disaster depicted in Leave The World Behind isn’t necessarily the collapse we see at its conclusion, then, but the pacification that led to it. Or, to quote Postman one final time, “People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
Leave The World Behind is streaming now on Netflix.