Leave the World Behind Ending, Explained

Even before its release, Leave the World Behind (2023) was considered noteworthy for several reasons: it is based on Rumaan Alam’s critically-acclaimed novel of the same name, and it marks the Obamas’ first fictional movie under their production banner. It is a cautionary tale that explores the themes of class disparity, race, the fragility of society, dangers of isolation, and the perils of technology.

With its sly Hitchcock allusions, dissonant music and jarring scenes, Netflix’s dystopian sci-fi thriller movie leaves behind a lingering feeling of unease. The ending of Leave the World Behind, however, can be seen in two ways: a wry outlook on the modern world, or an underlying note about strength in unity.

RELATED: This Netflix Show Pushed Dystopian Sci-Fi to Its Limit

How Does Leave the World Behind End?

In its final moments, Leave the World Behind cuts back and forth between the separated parties. While G.H. (a well-cast Mahershala Ali) and Clay (portrayed by Ethan Hawke) take Archie (Charlie Evans) to the survivalist Danny (played by Kevin Bacon) for medication for his inexplicable illness, Amanda (Julia Roberts) searches for the missing Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) in the nearby woods with Ruth (Myha’la).

Danny shares his own conspiracy theories, and suggests that Archie’s teeth falling out may be the effect of a microwave weapon. He also mentions that there is an underground bunker in their neighbor’s house, where they could stay. However, he refuses to help them and, with a gun in hand, claims that his only responsibility is to his own family. G.H. draws out his own gun and, after a tense stand-off, Danny agrees to give antibiotics in exchange for cash when Clay begs him.

After returning to the car, G.H. reflects on Danny’s aggressive behavior, which seems to confirm his suspicions about what is actually happening. As he tells Clay, a client in the defense sector had warned him about a particular military campaign that could topple a country’s government in three stages: isolating people through cyberattacks; bringing about “synchronized chaos” with misinformation campaigns; and instigating a civil war. Considered the most cost-effective way to destabilize a nation, this may have been caused by any of America’s geopolitical rivals.

Meanwhile, Amanda and Ruth set aside their differences to follow Rose’s bicycle tracks. Ruth ends up being cornered by a sinister herd of deer, but Amanda manages to scare them away by screaming loudly. They continue their search until they come across a clear view of the Manhattan skyline, as a series of bombs detonate and the city goes up in smoke.

Leave the World Behind ends with Rose discovering the fully-equipped bunker in the neighbor’s house. A monitor flashes an emergency alert: the White House and major cities are under attack by rogue armed forces, and elevated radiation levels have been detected. Without noticing the warnings, Rose heads to the shelf full of DVDs and picks out Friends. She pops it into the DVD player to play “The Last One”, and the ever-familiar theme song — The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You” — fills the silence.

Neither the source material nor the film gives a conclusive answer to the bigger questions. As Alam said in an interview with Variety, “I’m not withholding a definitive answer because I’m not in possession of that.” The story encourages the audience to draw their own theories about whether this is a war, civil disorder, environmental disaster or something else entirely — which ultimately makes the situation much more terrifying.

Unlike the others, Rose decides she is “tired of waiting” and prioritizes getting her own closure, spending her fleeting time on earth watching Ross and Rachel get back together. While Ruth dismisses it as being “nostalgic for a time that never existed”, Rose’s obsession with the show proves that escapism — to “leave the world behind” — is sometimes necessary. This comes through what Clay says earlier about his student writing a book on “how media serves as both an escape and a reflection”. As Sam Esmail told USA Today:

I felt that Rose’s attachment to Friends was very human and comforting. In a way, that is the heartbeat of the film: Rose’s yearning to escape to that comfort zone.

What Is Leave the World Behind About?

Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans) in Netflix's Leave the World Behind (2023)


Sam Esmail

Based On

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam


Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la, Charlie Evans, Farrah Mackenzie

Release Date

December 8, 2023


141 minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score

75% (based on 118 critics’ reviews)

Leave the World Behind defies expectations right from the outset; it opens with Hollywood’s sweetheart staring jadedly out the window and declaring herself a misanthrope. She plans an impromptu weekend trip to a lavish house in Long Island. The Sandfords’ dependency on technology is established in their first scene together: Amanda talks on call with a friend; Clay listens to music; Archie plays video games; and Rose watches the final season of Friends. At first, the signs of imminent danger are minute – the Wi-Fi becomes glitchy, and Amanda spots Danny buying large quantities of essentials. The threat becomes more pronounced when an oil tanker runs ashore while the family is on the beach.

Later that night, G.H. Scott (a financier with high-profile clients) shows up at the doorstep with his daughter Ruth, explaining that he is the owner of the house. Apparently there is a blackout in the city, and they would prefer to stay in Long Island until things settle down. Ruth’s mother is in Morocco for business, and is due to fly back the next morning. Amanda is immediately suspicious of them, but Clay lets them spend the night after G.H. offers him $1000.

Amanda wakes up to news alerts on her phone, warning about the blackout and hackers. Clay leaves for town to get answers, but gets lost. He encounters a distressed Spanish woman, after which he sees a drone dropping leaflets titled ‘Death to America’ in Arabic. G.H. leaves for a neighbor’s house but finds it in ruins. The beach nearby is scattered with bodies, and he witnesses another plane crashing into the same spot.

Tensions escalate as a number of bizarre occurrences follow: deer with unblinking eyes; a flock of flamingos landing in the pool; a sudden and shrill noise every few hours; and self-driving cars crashing into one another, jamming the highway. Both families are now forced to survive together, while trying to overcome their misgivings about each other.

What Do Critics Think of Leave the World Behind?

Myha'la, Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali in Leave the World Behind (2023)

Leave the World Behind has a rating of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the critics’ consensus is as follows:

An exceptionally well-acted apocalyptic thriller, Leave the World Behind steadily draws the viewer in despite its leisurely pace and somewhat simplistic messaging.

Despite the fact that many viewers felt cheated by the ending, the film ratchets up the suspense effectively as the plot slowly unravels with each chapter. The unexplained phenomena are still intriguing, with the sweeping camera movements and inverted compositions reflecting each ambiguous calamity. The cast also convincingly portrays wide-eyed, oddball characters who have been yanked out of their privileged cocoons. By the end of Leave the World Behind, one cannot help but think that Amanda’s cynical take on humans may not be too far from the truth after all. MORE: The Humans Are the Real Monsters Trope in Sci-Fi, Explained