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Must We ‘Leave the World Behind’?

Must We ‘Leave the World Behind’?


The recent movie, Leave the World Behind (Sam Esmail, Dir; 2023; Netflix), based on the novel by Rumaan Alam (2020) is not what it seems, to wit, a disturbing narrative of a family’s holiday weekend gone awry when an unfolding cyberattack paralyses their electronic devices and gradually wreaks havoc in the air, in cities and on roads, as perceptible in some scenes. 

Debbie Lerman’s perceptive article highlighted a number of relevant aspects of this significant movie – not ‘significant’ because of any outstanding cinematic features, but because of its symptomatic importance, as I shall try to show – but I would like to focus on another side to it. Although compatible with Lerman’s piece – I particularly found myself agreeing with the title of her essay – this interpretation aims to concentrate on several scene-sequences in the film, as well as other related considerations, in an attempt to uncover some of the probable intentions behind its production. 

But is this not a matter of reading something into the movie that is not there? In a certain sense, yes, namely that – on the face of – it is a disaster movie of sorts. ‘Of sorts,’ because the ‘real disaster’ which the narrative hints at in an open-ended manner is only just beginning to play out where the movie ends, with Rosie starting to watch what seems like the last episode of her favourite television series, Friends, in a neighbour’s underground bunker stocked with ‘prepper’ supplies. 

This is itself a significant scene: Rosie, the young daughter of the white couple (the Sandfords), escapes into a sitcom fantasy (which ‘makes her happy’) at the very moment when it appears that everyone is completely helpless in the face of an unfolding series of events too vast to grasp adequately, let alone address by effective intervention. 

Hence, ostensibly it is a disaster film, but several things – both intra-cinematically and extra-cinematically – strongly suggest that it is much more than that. The first concerns the unsightly Klaus Schwab, real-world counterpart of the ‘Emperor Palpatine,’ or Darth Sidious, in George Lucas’s Star Wars, although his oft-melodramatic outfits suggest that he rather fancies himself as the ominous Darth Vader. Not long ago Darth Schwab’s organisation, the World Economic Forum, issued a stark cyberattack warning, comparing the rate at which its effects would spread to that of the ‘novel coronavirus’ that caused Covid-19. Schwab himself has weighed in on this possibility, too, as seen in this video, where The People’s Voice presenter somewhat bluntly claims that Barack Obama used the film to ‘order governments to prepare [the] public for [an] imminent depopulation event.’ Presumably this is because the Obamas’ company, presumptuously titled Higher Ground Productions, produced the movie, while the couple also acted as executive producers.      

While his statement is ingenuous, the presenter in this The People’s Voice video (linked above) is nevertheless on the right track. However, by producing a cinematic narrative that is easily recognisable as belonging to a specific genre – that of disaster films, related to action and thriller movies – Obama can rely on what is nowadays known as ‘plausible deniability’ (particularly on the part of those responsible for ‘sudden deaths’ among individuals who received the Covid ‘vaccines’).

One of the elements of the film that cleverly provides such deniability is the references (through a conversation with Danny) to the probability that the cyberattack was launched by China, or North Korea, or Iran. Yet, one cannot avoid wondering in what way, as executive producer, Obama was able to tweak Esmail’s direction, and perhaps did so, given the apparent frequency with which he communicated with the latter about this:

Alam’s critically-acclaimed novel was on former President Obama’s 2021 summer reading list, and Esmail shared that as the film was adapted into a suspenseful screenplay, the American politician offered useful feedback.

“In the original drafts of the script, I definitely pushed things a lot farther than they were in the film, and President Obama, having the experience he does have, was able to ground me a little bit on how things might unfold in reality,” Esmail says to Vanity Fair.

The filmmaker also talks about his fear of working with the former president and receiving his critiques.

“He had a lot [of] notes about the characters and the empathy we would have for them,” Esmail says. He continues, “I have to say he is a big movie lover, and he wasn’t just giving notes about things that were from his background. He was giving notes as a fan of the book, and he wanted to see a really good film.”

It does seem like an extraordinary degree of involvement in the scriptwriting and directing of a movie by an executive producer, and reading between the lines of Esmail’s account of Obama’s ‘interest,’ one discerns inklings of more than just a movie fan’s eagerness to have a hand in a film he is producing (as opposed to directing). Take this, for example: ‘…I definitely pushed things a lot farther than they were in the film’, ‘…how things might unfold in reality’, or ‘…his fear of working with the former president and receiving his critiques.’ 

For Esmail, who earlier directed the television series Mr Robot (a nihilistic critique of techno-capitalism) to critical acclaim, to be intimidated by Obama is significantly improbable, recalling that, the similarly apocalyptic tenor of the earlier series notwithstanding, it contrasted noticeably with the recent movie in terms of images of resistance to totalitarian control in the guise of vigilantism. Furthermore, Obama’s interest in shifting Leave the World Behind in a more realistic direction should be seen in light of the intended audiences of the film, which are global, given Netflix’s reach. Why would the former president of the US want to dish up something with a taste of reality (to come) to audiences? 

A preliminary clue about the answer to this question is found in the film’s dialogue, where GH says to Clay, sitting next to him in his car, referring to a three-stage, destabilising ‘program’ that terrified a client of his (after finally persuading Danny to part with some of his medical supplies for treating Archie’s strange, tooth-shedding condition): 

This program was considered the most cost-effective way to destabilize a country because if the target nation was dysfunctional enough it would do the work for you. Whoever started this, wants us to finish it.  

The last sentence is the symptomatic giveaway. It is a classic example of what is known as ‘predictive programming (or coding)’ – the subtle preparation of audiences for future events by inserting references to them into movies, television programmes, or newspapers. (In The People’s Voice video, linked above, several other such recent examples of predictive coding are discussed, as well as philosopher Alan Watts’s revealing comment on it.) The whistleblower, Karen Kingston, did not waste any time to draw this conclusion in the December 15 edition of her Substack, where she asks pointedly: “Are the Obamas Showing Us Their Exact Plan for America?” This question is prompted by her observation that:

There’s also [a] disturbingly prophetic scene in the film where two of the female characters are staring at New York City from afar, watching massive explosions combust along the 5-mile Manhattan island. Coincidentally, the Con Edison Plant in New York City exploded at 5 minutes to midnight last night, leaving millions in darkness. 

Needless to stress, the news about the explosion at the power facility seemed to Kingston to adumbrate worse to come. Commenting on the last sentence in HG’s remark in the film, quoted above –Whoever started this, wants us to finish it – she writes:

The enemies of America who are fueling our internal wars want us to finish what they started. I say we take them up on their offer in finishing what they started, but not according to their agenda. We reunite and emerge from their deployed chaos in accordance with God’s laws – with repentance, respect, forgiveness, justice, and unity, while maintaining our liberties and constitutional rights.

It is superfluous to say that I fully endorse this sentiment. But the precise nature of this elaborate piece of cinematic deception has not been demonstrated yet, and I use the term ‘deception’ advisedly, because that is precisely what it is, although far more sophisticated than meets the eye. It has to do with what psychoanalytic theorist, Jacques Lacan, calls the ‘lure,’ which first makes its appearance when the child engages ‘in the dialectic of the lure’ as he puts it in his 4th Seminar, The Object-Relation (p. 186).

What happens here is that the child makes ‘himself a deceptive object’ or ‘turns himself into an object meant to trick’ the mother (p.187). Lacan emphasises that ‘This is not merely a sort of immediate lure, as can be produced in the animal kingdom where the one that is decked out in all the colours of display has to establish the whole situation by parading around.’ 

At stake is the child’s attempt to be the mother’s ‘fulfilment’– because she or he senses the mother’s desire for this – to be ‘everything’ for her, which is, of course, impossible. Hence the child has to resort to deception, or the lure. In other words, there is a kind of double lure at play here – the child does not simply desire the mother’s attention and hence, tries to lure her into giving it; because the mother’s unfulfillable desire is sensed by the child, the latter has to hide this realisation, and pretend to be what she desires, by deceiving or tricking her. 

By contrast, when birds engage in mating behaviour, for instance, the lure, or deception, is biologically direct, but with human beings it is evidently more complicated, as Dylan Evans explains in An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (p. 107):

Whereas animal lures are straightforward, the human being is unique in being capable of a special kind of lure which involves a ‘double deception.’ This is a kind of lure which involves deceiving by pretending to deceive (i.e. telling a truth that one expects to be taken for a lie)…The classic example of the properly human lure is the joke quoted by Freud (and often cited by Lacan) about the two Polish Jews: ‘Why do you tell me you are going to Cracow so I’ll believe you are going to Lvov, when you are really going to Cracow?’…Other animals are incapable of this special kind of lure owing to the fact that they do not possess language. 

This little theoretical detour affords one the means to explain the sense in which Leave the World Behind is a lure, a ‘double deception.’ Its double structure, analogous to the Polish joke alluded to by Evans, above, is this: through the film, ‘those behind it’ warn us that there is going to be a cyberattack, so that we will think there won’t be one (because ‘no one would say so openly,’ would they?), but in fact, they are planning a cyberattack. The deception is therefore more sophisticated than it seems at first sight. The only problem is, unlike the Freudian story about the two Polish Jews, it is no joke. 

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  • Bert Olivier

    Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is 'Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.'

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