Julia Roberts and Runaway Teslas ‘Leave the World Behind’

Netflix movie about disaster and societal collapse shows how widespread cybersecurity breaches might bring down a nation.

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Editor

December 13, 2023

[Editor's Note: After the podcast was recorded, Tesla recalled two million cars -- almost the entirety of its cars sold in the United States since 2015 -- to address an issue with its Autopilot software. The error was cited as a factor in some 1,000 crashes, pointing to a problem with driver attention when retaking control from the driver assistance system. Tesla is issuing a software update, according to a letter filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.]

Want to get away from it all, ditch connections to the internet, mobile, GPS guidance, and every device that underpins modern society? Ready to watch fleets of self-driving vehicles get hijacked by bad actors who want to cause calamity?

Those are a few elements of the societal implosion seen in “Leave the World Behind,” a disaster movie now running on Netflix, which stars Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, and Kevin Bacon.

Some aspects of the story were reminiscent of classic episodes of “The Twilight Zone” but with modern technology playing a significant hand in the upheaval given our intense dependence on it. Push enough buttons and a quiet neighborhood can turn into “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”

While “Leave the World Behind” drew some divisive, passionate critiques, many aspects of its disaster rely heavily on IT infrastructure being compromised by bad actors.

Machines misbehaving can be a common trope in fiction, from simple data heists to robot invasions. “Leave the World Behind” shows the result of a variety of coordinated cyberattacks across multiple vectors to disrupt the country, albeit in exaggerated fashion.

The focus of the movie is the human drama that plays out when access to information is compromised and automated controls get used against society. In fact, many of the movie’s disaster elements echo real-world tech concerns. This year saw major seaports in Australia shut down temporarily because of a cyberattack. Last winter and then again in the spring, Southwest Airlines was forced to ground its planes because of data management and data connection problems. The ongoing development of self-driving cars still faces some hurdles before it can go fully mainstream -- despite what Elon Musk promises.

Spoilers ahead. This episode of DOS Won’t Hunt takes a look at the breakdown and abuses of technology in “Leave the World Behind,” how farfetched some of the examples are, and whether there is real risk of planes, cars, and oil tankers running amok because of digital bad actors.

About the Author(s)

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Senior Editor

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth covers tech policy, including ethics, privacy, legislation, and risk; fintech; code strategy; and cloud & edge computing for InformationWeek. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years, reporting on business and technology first in New Jersey, then covering the New York tech startup community, and later as a freelancer for such outlets as TheStreet, Investopedia, and Street Fight. Follow him on Twitter: @jpruth.

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