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[Kim Seong-kon] If America chooses to 'leave the world behind'

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 17, 2024 - 05:31

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Currently, the United States of America is experiencing a plethora of domestic and overseas crises. Internally, there is unprecedented political bipolarity, severe inflation and the surge of a COVID-19 variant called JN 1 that have caused widespread deaths. Externally, the Ukraine war, the South China Sea dispute and North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile launches threatening mainland America come to mind.

Under the circumstances, many Americans no longer want their country to interfere in international affairs. They want to “leave the world behind” instead and have their country lead a serene life in isolation. Surely, however, that is not the Founding Fathers’ original dream.

One way to watch the 2023 American apocalyptic movie, “Leave the World Behind” is to read it as a metaphorical depiction of what would happen if Americans chose to be isolated from the world. The movie begins with that premise, as Amanda Sanford, an advertising executive from New York, is tired of people and the world and decides to “leave the world behind” for a quiet vacation in a rented house in Long Island with her husband Clay and her two children, Rose and Archie.

When they arrive at the beautiful rented house, however, a series of weird things start to happen. There is no Wi-Fi connection, no mobile phone service and no TV reception in that house. A huge cargo ship crashes on the seashore where they are sunbathing. At night, a man named George H. Scott suddenly appears with his daughter Ruth at the doorstep and reveals that he is the owner of the house. George then explains that he and his daughter had to return home because of an abrupt citywide blackout in the city, where they were residing.

Amanda is suspicious of George and Ruth, and tells Clay that they may be charlatans or caretakers of the house at best. She seems not to believe that a Black man would be the owner of the mansion. Thus, one of the film’s themes is looming here: racial prejudice and trust issues between different races in times of crisis.

To find out what is happening, Clay tries to drive into the nearest town. Since his GPS is down, however, he goes astray. Suddenly, a terrified woman clings on his car door and tells him something presumably important in Spanish, but Clay cannot understand a word. This scene seems to criticize Americans’ ignorance of foreign languages.

Meanwhile, due to apparent digital malfunctions, planes keep crashing and self-driving cars pile up, too, blocking the expressways. George guesses that either America is under a cyberattack from a foreign entity or the US government is setting off a secret microwave weapon in order to create chaos and grasp absolute power to control the nation.

When Archie gets sick, George takes Archie and Clay to his friend Danny’s home for help. To their disappointment, Danny refuses to help them under the excuse of protecting his own family. Here, the movie seems to parody the behaviors of some Americans who enormously enjoy the TV series “Friends” -- the TV show that is a recurring motif in the film -- and yet disregard friendship in times of crisis.

Appropriately, the movie ends with youngest child Rose watching the last episode of “Friends,” listening to the theme song: “But, I'll be there for you, when the rain starts to pour/ I'll be there for you.” I am tempted to read this ironic scene as a metaphor for America’s geopolitical status: If Americans choose isolation, America will lose many friends because its allies will no longer trust her as a friend.

Referring to the presumed cyberattack, Danny tells George and Clay, “It’s the Koreans behind all this. Just trust me. It’s the Koreans. Or the Chinese. One of them.” Danny does not even seem to know that there are two Koreas and one of them is America’s ally. Here, the film also criticizes Americans’ lack of knowledge of foreign countries.

“Leave the World Behind” reminds us of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” in which the author laments the vanishing “greatness” of America, using Long Island as a microcosm of America. “Leave the World Behind,” too, envisions the image of America in Long Island a century later.

Watching “Leave the World Behind,” we can perceive the problems of contemporary American society. Just like Amanda, today’s Americans are tired of their role in the world and want to “leave the world behind” for a tranquil life in a secluded place. However, this impulse creates serious problems. When America retreats, her enemies will take over the world and try to paralyze the country through a cyberattack. American political leaders, too, may take advantage of the situation to exert tyrannical power. Yet the most terrifying thing about such a scenario is that “nobody is in control” during the process, as George worries.

“Leave the World Behind” portrays the grim future of America when it chooses to be isolated from the world. The film makes us contemplate not only the future of America, but also the future of the world without America.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.