The apocalypse is mundane in writer-director Aleem Hossain’s feature debut After We Leave. The world is dying, and everyone is clamoring to get off it, no one more than Jack Chaney (Brian Silverman) — an ex-con who is returning to Los Angeles after leaving both his criminal partner Eric (Clay Wilcox) and wife Vanessa years prior. Jack plans to win Vanessa back with a visa to one of the off-world colonies, hoping to escape planet Earth together. However, nothing is ever so simple, as Jack’s past comes back to make what should be a simple task— get the girl and get off the planet— exceedingly difficult and dangerous.
While After We Leave is unambiguously science-fiction, Hossain is always sure to keep the human in the foreground and fantastical in the background. Indeed, there’s science-fiction aplenty here with all manner of futuristic gizmos — DNA coded visas, paralytic implants, temple phones, shuttles, and impossible architecture — serving as nothing but garnishes on the meat of the main story. The film opens with Jack in a field, watching a trio shuttles breach the stratosphere, destined for an off-world colony. Hossain maintains that distance throughout the rest of the film, that science-fiction world exists, yes, but it is always out of Jack’s reach. His life is an open wound of sins and misdeeds, and he must atone and change before he can ever hope for off-world salvation.
Whether or not Jack is worth the salvation he seeks is the question at the heart of this story. He truly wants to reconcile with Vanessa and become a better man. However, the main thrust of After We Leave is concerned with how quickly Jack slips back into the bad habits that landed him in this mess. It takes less than a day of being in Los Angeles for him to reunite with Eric and return to his criminal ways. Jack tells himself time and again that his crimes are just a means to find Vanessa and get off-world, but he falls back into his old habits too quickly for that to be true. He’s got a “one last job” outlook, but Hossain delves deep into the psychology that leads to that worldview by making Jack the subject and a subtly smart and ultimately bittersweet character-study.
There’s a quiet poeticism to the whole film. Hossain creates a world that acts as a mirror for Jack; the internal workings of both are eroded and toxic. Is Jack a victim of the world breaking, or is it his brand of selfishness that broke the world? A bit of both says Hossain, who shoots the film with an understated grittiness befitting of its grim tone.
The majority of the film takes place in abandoned suburbs, which elevate the fatalistic movie outlook. Areas that should be bustling with life are dead quiet, left behind by people who have realized that the kind of damage they’ve done cannot be undone — a world succumbing to environmental destruction, energy scarcity, growing crime, and general societal collapse. The film’s score is less music and more of a low drone, the kind that feels ominous and inevitable. There’s no mistaking that After We Leave is about climate change, and Hossain uses Jack’s journey as the perfect metaphor for its exploration — Jack is a cipher for the audience, his internal festering acting as a microcosm of the human race’s exploitation of the Earth.
Hossain works within his (presumably) tiny budget, making the narrative oppressively intimate — Jack is trapped in an ever-tightening circle of flight; his choices shrink as the liveability of the world constricts. The conclusion Hossain reaches is haunting, befitting of the kind of film that After We Leave is. It’s unassuming at first but builds to a finish that will stay with you for a long time to come.
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