Leave The World Behind first premiered on Netflix back in December of 2023, to a flurry of rave reviews. The mysterious apocalyptic thriller provides audiences with a wide array of fascinating perspectives to ruminate on, examining racism, classism, nuclear warfare in a modern context, and the pros and cons of humanity. Given that the star-studded film packs so much interesting insight into its 2 hour and 20 minute run time, it seems like now is as good a time as any to dive into the subject matter of Leave The World Behind, unpack the ending, and examine the film’s key themes.

As always, there will be heavy spoilers below, so please be sure to bookmark this page and return after watching the film to completion if you haven’t already seen it. Leave The World Behind is a Netflix original, and should be available on the streaming library for the foreseeable future. Without any further preamble, let’s analyze the terrifying film, and see what key information can be gleaned from the climactic final moments.

Is Leave The World Behind Based On A Book?

Leave The World Behind was written and directed by Sam Esmail, who is best known for creating the hit USA Network series Mr. Robot. Esmail adapted the screenplay from a 2020 novel of the same name, written by American author and podcast host Rumaan Alam. The adaptation rights to the novel were won by Netflix after an intense bidding war, with Barack and Michelle Obama executive producing through their media outlet Higher Ground Productions. The former president was a noted fan of the novel, having included it on his 2021 Summer reading list.

What Happens In The Film?

The narrative of Leave The World Behind centers on the Sandfords, a white nuclear family who choose to ‘leave the world behind’ so to speak by booking a weekend vacation at a lavish Long Island home. Before the group depart for their trip, they begin to take note of a number of bizarre occurrences around them, including shoppers stocking up on abnormal quantities of canned goods and fresh drinking water at the grocery store. While taking some time to unwind at the beach, a massive oil tanker boat beelines for the shore, and becomes beached in the sand. Clay and Amanda Sandford note that this is odd, before being informed that ships around the world have been experiencing significant navigational issues in recent days.

Once they get settled into the vacation home, the Sandford’s quickly realize that the television and Wi-Fi are out, causing them to question if the electrical interference is related to the navigational grid going down. This is a particular problem for Amanda and Clay’s daughter Rose, who is nearing the end of her months-long binge of the sitcom Friends. As the adults fear for the safety and security of their family, Rose becomes obsessively preoccupied with finishing the series.

As night falls, the owner of the vacation home and his daughter arrive at the Long Island residence and explain that they need to seek shelter inside due to the blackout. Amanda is highly suspicious of the pair, partially because of the panic state induced by the unexplained situation, and partially because of her internalized racism, which makes it difficult for her to believe that a black man could be wealthy enough to own this property. As the families argue with one another, the television turns to an emergency broadcast, warning of impending doom. The following morning, Amanda learns that the entire East Coast is without power, as some kind of emergency is radically harming American infrastructure. To investigate further, Clay attempts to drive into town, as the homeowner, G.H. Scott, travels next door to get answers from his neighbor.

What Caused The Grid To Go Down?

As each of the adults continue to investigate the mysterious source of the satellite outage, more questions are raised than answered. Amanda encounters a massive herd of deer who stand motionless in the middle of the rental property, an alarming sight which suggests that something is impacting the migration and behavioral patterns of local wildlife. Meanwhile, Clay sees that a drone is dropping thousands of flyers across the roads, with a message written in Arabic threatening to drop explosives on America’s civilian population. As G.H. arrives at his neighbor’s house, he finds the wreckage from a plane crash, only to see another airliner careening out of the sky, directly into the lot. G.H. manages to run away from the airliner just as it explodes into the Earth, narrowly avoiding certain death.

Leave The World Behind never provides a direct answer as to what causes all of the chaos throughout the film. Is it a natural event? A terrorist attack? A false flag used to undermine citizen’s rights by a tyrannical government? Neither the characters nor the audience at home ever get concrete answers to these questions, as the true horror within the film lies in the unknown.

Later, Amanda and Clay’s son Archie is bit by a tick, before his teeth begin to fall out in rapid succession. This could be the result of some kind of illness wrought by the insect bite, or the first symptom of Archie’s exposure to a biological weapon of some kind. The point is, knowing the source of your problems at least provides an understanding of how to treat them, though multiple conflicting culprits for your issues make it impossible to assess the situation and construct a plan of action.

How Does Leave The World Behind End?

The Sandfords pack up and attempt to meet with Amanda’s family in New Jersey, but find the expressway blocked with multiple unmanned Teslas in a massive pile-up. As they attempt to turn their car around, more auto-piloted Teslas come from behind, and slam into the growing pile of crashed cars. With no escape from the island, the family return to G.H.’s home, and try to formulate a safety plan. Clay, Archie, and G.H. travel to meet with another of G.H.’s neighbors, a doomsday-prepping survivalist named Danny. After first engaging in an armed stand-off with Danny, the group surmise that the general population of the United States is under attack from a force seeking to create a breakdown of social order.

In the final moments of the film, we see New York City being bombed in the distance, signaling certain death for each of the main characters. Still, Rose manages to make her way into a bomb shelter in a neighboring residence, where an active computer confirms that nuclear warfare has leveled multiple major cities within the United States. Just before Leave The World Behind cuts to the credits, Rose locates a DVD of the final season of Friends, and indulges herself by watching the final episode.

Ending And Themes Explained

Throughout the entire film, there are themes of humanity being a scourge on the planet, suggesting that the total annihilation of life on Earth may actually be a necessary reset. The film goes out of its way to highlight plastic and other manmade waste littering the streets and beaches of Long Island, and shows that people can rapidly turn into animals when their safety and peace of mind is threatened. Amanda is the most vocal source of this outlook, as she frequently refers to people as being “terrible,” and at one point argues “I think we know we’re living a lie. An agreed upon mass delusion to help us ignore and keep ignoring how awful we really are.”

Despite Amanda’s bleak outlook on humanity, or perhaps because of it, she displays openly racist views toward G.H. and his daughter Ruth. Before reluctantly allowing the black man and his daughter to seek refuge in their own home in the midst of a major national emergency, Amanda argues that they must be hired help for the property, posing as the homeowners in order to enact some kind of con or violent crime. G.H. is no stranger to this outlook, as he has taken care not to decorate the home with anything that could ‘out’ his identity to the wealthy white families who rent the lavish property. The only family photos or culturally relevant items are hidden away in a locked office.

But G.H. isn’t just a hapless victim in the film, as he may indirectly have had a hand in setting off the chain of events which causes this civilizational collapse to begin with. G.H. works in finance, and primarily funds defense contractors. The very source of income which funds his ability to own such a sprawling Long Island residence is the same income which was likely used to fund acts of terror upon the United States. G.H. notes early in the film that he saw some alarming patterns in his work in the days leading up to the bombing, as major defense contractors began pulling their money out of accounts in massive sums.

Why Is Rose Obsessed With ‘Friends’?

It may seem odd that a film about nuclear annihilation is bookended with references to the cheery, upbeat sitcom Friends. The show, like most sitcoms, serves as an escape from reality, allowing viewers to leave their own world behind and become lost in the gripping narrative of a series of brief, 22-minute vignettes. At first, Rose seems like a character incapable of seeing the world around her, as she remains buried in her iPad, feverishly burning through the final season of the show while she should be enjoying a family road trip. Instead, as the film carries on, it becomes clear that Rose is more in tune with the world around her than anyone else.

At one point in Leave The World Behind, Rose tells her mother about the parable of the drowning man. This story, often used as a joke in popular culture, tells the tale of a man drowning at sea, who refuses the assistance of two boats and a helicopter, and chooses to continue struggling in the open ocean, convinced that God himself will come to his aid. Eventually, the man dies, and asks God why he didn’t offer his assistance. God flatly responds by explaining that he sent two boats and a helicopter, and the story concludes with the moral that God helps those who help themselves.

Throughout the film, Rose is the first to notice impending dangers, such as the oil tanker crashing on the beach or the strange behavior of animals all over the island. As the film comes to its final act, Rose discovers the home with the bomb shelter, and resolves to enter the shelter without waiting around to be saved by some all-knowing, all-seeing force. Rose helped herself, and as a result, serves as the lone survivor of the nuclear assault.