Amanda Sanford (Julia Roberts) wakes up one morning with a desire to take her family on a surprise vacation to a rented house on Long Island. Her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) is a professor and her children Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans) are tech savvy. But at the house there is no cell connection. Rose is particularly devastated not to be able to binge-watch Friends. As they relax on a nearby beach, a huge oil tanker comes in from the sea and crashes on the beach, the bathers scattering in panic. They go back home and find that the TV and wi-fi are not getting signals either.
That night, the children asleep, G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la) turn up, claiming that the house is theirs and they have come because there is a city-wide blackout in New York. Amanda is distrustful, if not racist, but Clay drives into town looking for answers and G.H. goes to a neighbor’s house. That house is in ruins and there is an airplane crashed on the beach, A second plane falls out of the sky and G.H. flees in terror.. Clay can’t find his way into town because his GPS doesn’t work. He drives off, abandoning a Spanish-speaking woman begging tearfully for help, and a drone drops leaflets in Arabic. Rose watches the deer come out of the woods and observe her, unafraid. Archie is bitten by an insect.
A screeching noise overpowers everyone. The Sanfords try to drive to the city, but the highway is full of idle self-driving cars crashing into each other, and they return. That night, G.H. tells Amanda that a government conspiracy might be responsible. They begin to bond and are attracted to each other but do nothing about it. Ruth asks Clay to vape some dope with her and asks some suggestive questions. She later tells her father that Clay came on to her. They discuss Ruth’s mother, who they think must be dead.
The next morning, Rose disappears and Archie’s teeth start to fall out. G.H. takes Clay and Archie to a neighbor, Danny (Kevin Bacon) who is a survivalist, for medication. After a tense, armed stand-off, Danny provides Archie with penicillin. G.H. thinks a coup d’etat is happening, and the people in power are creating blackouts and misinformation. Looking for Rose, Amanda saves Ruth from a strange deer-attack. From a distance, they see New York erupting in mushroom-clouds. Rose walks into a nearby home with an underground bunker and finds a DVD of Friends to watch.
The film was written, directed, and produced by Sam Esmail, based on the novel by Rumaan Alam, and also produced by Julia Roberts. It appeared in several theaters and was released on Netflix. The cast was unable to attend its AFI release because of the SAG-AFTRA strike. It was well received. It starts out like a standard apocalyptic film, but the superior actors, the unsettling music, and the slow build of the story give it an air of creepy reality. Barack Obama executive-produced and is said to have had a hand in its writing.
Denzel Washington was cast at first but dropped out and was replaced by Mahershala Ali. Sam Esmail and Julia Roberts previously collaborated on Gaslit (2022) and Season One of Homecoming (2018). The film reminds me, in its style, of several Vincent Price apocalyptic films. Previous end of the world movies featured somewhat supernatural causes—zombies or aliens, but this seems simply a matter of the military use of our too-delicate technology against us. It’s a kind of distant descendant of The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster (written incredibly, in 1909), in which everything simply stopped working and the people just waited to die. It’s not only creepy, it’s disturbing.