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  • Julia Roberts confronts the unknown in the Netflix sci-fi drama ‘Leave the World Behind.’ (Photo: ScreenCap/Netflix)

    Julia Roberts is the driving force in her new movie “Leave the World Behind;” the question is where is she going? After two hours and 20 minutes, it’s hard to tell.

    The Netflix movie was produced, written and directed by Sam Esmail, who is best known for The USA Network series Mr. Robot (2015–2019), the 2014 film, Comet and the critically acclaimed psychological thriller Homecoming (2018–2020), also starring Roberts.

    Given his previous work, Esmail would seem to have the chops to pull off this apocalyptic psychological thriller.

    It delves into an interesting scenario — an attack on the United States that begins with cyber warfare, followed by electro-magnetic pulses that take out all forms of communication.

    The attack’s goal is to create fear, isolation and paranoia. Ultimately friends and neighbors are supposed to turn on each other driven by polarization and mistrust in today’s conspriacy-laden society.

    It becomes a test of wills and trust as the characters each struggle with their own demons. The acting and special effects are strong, but in the end, the plot fails to deliver.

    Roberts provides most of the dramatic tension as Amanda Scott, a frazzled, jaded wife and mother who works as an advertising sales rep. She’s lost her faith in humanity and has an extremly anxious personality.

    Myha’la, full name Myha’la Jael Herrold, breaks out in the film as the daughter of an African-American high-tech, high-finance, something-or-other father, G.H. Scott, (Mahershala Ali).

    Ethan Hawke, who plays Amanda’s college-professor husband Clay rounds out the cast with a cameo by Kevin Bacon as a gnarly working-class prepper.

    Myha’la who plays Ruth is a savvy, street-smart teen who also has a vulnerable side. She’s the counterpoint to Amanda. Her mistrust of the Scotts is based, in part, on their race and her own feelings of self-entitlement.

    Ruth’s family is rich; she’s an only child and her father’s darling. They own the well-appointed house that Amanda and Clay rent for a weekend to get away from their high-stress jobs in New York City.

    The Scotts and their two children, Rose, (Farrah MacKenzie) a precocious 13-year-old, and Archie (Charlie Evans), a gamer teen, are looking forward to spending a long weekend in “the country.”

    Rose and Archie, however, are almost peripheral characters. They don’t add much to the story. Their main relevance is Rose’s obsession with the ’90s sitcom “Friends.”

    She’s determined to find a way to watch the last episode of the tenth and final season, which plays into the movie, tangentially, later.

    Of course, things start out well enough. The Scotts head for the beach, where the movie gives its first signal that things have gone awry.

    An oil tanker plows into the beach. No word on the crew or why it couldn’t be steered, which is only the first of many plot holes.

    They head back home, puzzled but not overly alarmed until 3 a.m. that night when Ruth and G.H. suddenly show up univited. Well, it is their house, G.H. advises.

    They want to spend the night, for reasons that G.H. never makes entirely clear. That causes Amanda to throw up her misanthropic defenses. Who are they really? And, why show up in the middle of the night? Do they really (ahem) own such a gorgeous house?

    By now all communications — television, the Internet and phones — are out. The TV only works intermittently to flash national emergency warnings. They know something is up, but what?

    From there, the weirdness sets in. The characters become strained, but they are never really tested. The plot lurches from one unexplained phenomenon to another.

    The characters all seem to learn they have more in common than they thought. But the threads of humanity that emerge are never really tied together.

    Bacon’s rough-hewn prepper, Dan, is seen briefly early in the film stocking up on an overload of supplies at the local store. He’s the conspriracy nut we all read about, but in this case, he seems to be onto something.

    Unfortunately, Dan only appears briefly, again, later in the film in a standoff with G.H. and Clay. The film could have used a lot more of Dan, who, is a counter-point to metrosexuals like G.H. and Clay.

    By the way, Dan turns out to be just as clueless as everyone else, but provides a few tidbits that suggest a major war has begun. It’s confirmed with Ruth and Amanda see large explosions in New York City.

    The couples plan to break into a neigbor’s mansion after Dan suggests it has a bomb shelter. But guess what? Rose, who suddenly disappeared on a bike, is already there.

    In the interest of avoiding spoilers that’s as far as we’ll go with plot reveals. But trust us, the the flim’s ending will leave you flat. Many Netflix watchers call it “stupid.”

    It’s hard to recommend avoiding this film, because Roberts and Myha’la are tours de force and worth watching. But don’t get your expectations to high; the plot doesn’t live up to their performances.

    Not surprisingly, critics gave the film a 70 score on rottentomatoes.com, while people who’ve seen it, panned it with a 40 rating. Metacritic gave it a 67 score.

    “Esmail uses the story’s ambiguity almost like a get-out-of-jail-free card, piling on the weird events without actually telling us what’s happening. He half-asses it, in other words,” writes Bilge Ebiri summing up the movie in New York Magazine/Vulture.

    Check out the trailer below, and let us know your thoughts.