Julia Roberts’ latest film, Leave the World Behind, has been praised by critics and audiences alike for being both fast-paced and haunting. It provides an intriguing type of apocalypse examination, because it focuses on what happens to individuals who are distanced from the events taking place.

Rather than completely exploring the implications of this bizarre new world, it focuses on the wounds from the past, which must be confronted for the characters in the film to survive the new.

The film is based on Rumaan Alam’s novel of the same name and follows the Sanford family as they take an unplanned trip from Brooklyn to Long Island and rent a magnificent property by the coast to get away from it all. Their vacation is cut short when two strangers knock on their door one night and claim they own the property. The newcomers – a father and his daughter – claim to have come from the city as well and inform the family that there has been a blackout. As their world unravels around them, both families are forced to rely on one another for survival.

The film illustrates how a vacation is an illusion, and reality quickly catches up with us when we return to our normal lives. However, the movie’s appeal stems from the fact that it is based on a post-apocalyptic setting, which is a popular narrative in contemporary series and films. But why do people enjoy watching dark dystopian films so much, and what messages do filmmakers wish to convey through them?

According to behavioural scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark, post-apocalyptic shows are full of dangers and threats that most of us have never encountered. These fictions allow us to mentally explore uncharted territory, which can lead to a sense of enjoyment when done safely, such as from our living room couch.

Research has shown that when we watch shows like Leave the World Behind, our bodies and brains engage with the content as if it were actually happening, albeit in a less harmful way. We can feel the rushes of fear, adrenaline, and suspense. This can help make our sometimes-mundane world a lot more exciting.

Apocalyptic films force us out of our comfort zones and into more heroic roles. Apocalyptic narratives allow us to envisage our planet being reborn, with a second chance to rebuild it from the ground up.

The Greek word ‘apocalypse’ suggests the revealing of something hidden. This is the purpose of the apocalypse: revelation. And that’s the thing with apocalyptic films: it’s always about what happens after the world ends. They depict not only the struggle that occurs when the crisis begins, but also the changes that occur as a result of it.

Our screens are flooded with apocalyptic scenarios, and we often find them disguised in our culture, politics and media as well.

2023 had its fair share of bizarre and unexplained events that bordered on the apocalypse. This year, global temperatures broke records, resulting in epic wildfires, extreme drought, and record flooding, transforming climate change from a threat to a new reality.

After significant developments in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Doomsday Clock, representing how close the world is to a major disaster or nuclear war, was set to 90 seconds to midnight. This is closer to midnight than it has ever been since its inception in 1947.

Other events included a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria, killing 59,259 people; four minutes into its first full flight test, SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded; the ‘Godfather of AI,’ Geoffrey Hinton, resigned from Google amid rising concerns about AI; the FDA gave Elon Musk authorisation to test his Neuralink brain implants on humans, and Prince Harry published Spare, his ‘apocalyptic’ memoir on his upbringing and experiences with the royal family.

The ending of Leave the World Behind has had people talking since its release on December 8, with the film quickly becoming the most-watched movie on Netflix worldwide. It is a frustrating finish because it doesn’t really explain anything, but it is in line with the novel, which is equally ambiguous. As much as this film is a cautionary tale, it conveys the message that no matter how dark things may appear after an apocalyptic occurrence, we can always seek to find some hope.