So it’s a bit of a surprise to see their names on “Leave the World Behind,” a satisfyingly suspenseful apocalyptic thriller with almost enough visual effects to give “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Deep Impact” a run for their money. But it’s only a bit of a surprise. Starring Ethan Hawke, Julia Roberts, Charlie Evans, Farrah Mackenzie, Mahershala Ali and Myha’la as two families — one White, the other Black — who have been thrown together during a cascading series of calamities that test their ability to get along, the film also at times feel like its plot has been ripped from the headlines.
Themes of terrorism, technology and nature gone haywire, and racial and class tension simmer and boil over, in a plot taken from Rumaan Alam’s 2020 suspense novel, a fiction finalist for the National Book Award. It plays like an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but without the supernatural element and with a thick vein of social critique running throughout. What happens may be extreme, but it feels based on mundane reality.
Hawke and Roberts play Clay and Amanda Sandford, a couple from Brooklyn who have taken a spur-of-the-moment weekend getaway to a luxe house with a pool in a secluded hamlet on Long Island with their two kids: teenage Archie (Evans) and his little sister Rose (Mackenzie), who is obsessed with the TV show “Friends.” As the Sandfords are driving out from the city, they’re all connected to devices, lending a second meaning to the title, one that hints at how electronics distance us from the physical universe.
They aren’t there long before there’s a power outage, and then an unexpected arrival: a Black man in a tuxedo named George Scott (Ali), who says he’s the home’s owner, and his 20-something daughter, Ruth (Myha’la). The Scotts were on their way home from a night at the symphony when the power went out up and down the East Coast, as it turns out. Rather than climb stairs to their Manhattan apartment, George, who says he has a bad knee, has decided to ride out the blackout in their second home.
Amanda — a chronically mistrustful complainer who has already announced, in the film’s first few minutes, that she hates people — is immediately overwhelmed by a premixed cocktail of suspicion and envy, while the more puppyish Clay acts like it’s a college reunion. (While the two families negotiate an awkward détente, Clay tells George they live in Sunset Park; Amanda corrects him, calling it the tonier Park Slope.)
Their prickly four-way dynamic (Ruth makes the snap judgment that the Sandfords are racist) would be sufficient to carry any “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”-eque drama, which this certainly is, at least in part. But the story, admirably propelled forward by writer-director Sam Esmail (“Mr. Robot”), quickly ups the ante. It isn’t just the power that’s out. There’s no cellphone connection, the TV signal and internet are dead, and several loud, sonic boom-like noises from the distance are followed by painfully penetrating blasts of sound. In the backyard, dozens of deer congregate in a creepy, watchful herd.
Worse is yet to come, including a medical crisis and other surprises that are best not spoiled. All, for the most part, are deftly woven into a plausible tapestry of dread, through some of the visual effects seems more obviously CGI than others. References to Havana syndrome, the 2000 “Love” bug computer worm and other real (and real scary) events exposing our vulnerability to unknown evildoers are scattered throughout the story, lending an armature of verisimilitude to the otherwise over-the-top plot.
But it’s the human dynamic that is the most chilling and, in the end, almost hopeful. Kevin Bacon plays a QAnon-adjacent neighbor, George’s contractor Danny, who meets George and Clay with a gun — turns out George has one, too — when they show up seeking supplies from Danny’s storehouse of survivalist goods.
You can really tell this is a Higher Ground production toward the end, when George and Clay look at each other and, after all they’ve been through, realize that if they’re going to get through this — whatever “this” is — they’re going to have to overcome their differences. It’s no accident that the show Rose is so obsessed with, and that provides her with solace at what looks like the end of the world as we know it, is “Friends.” That, as this cautionary tale tells is, is exactly what we’re going to need to be for one another if we’re going to survive.
R. At area theaters; available Dec. 8 on Netflix. Contains strong language, some sexuality, drug use and brief bloody images. 141 minutes.