Published on September 2nd, 2015 | by Dan Gvozden0
Z FOR ZACHARIAH – REVIEW
Just when you thought that there were no new ideas to wring out of the increasingly overused setting of the end of the world, a film comes out of nowhere to prove otherwise. The end of the world brings with it an easily understood and instantly recognizable conflict, one that typically centers around defeating the cause of humanity’s extinction, warring with the remaining, oppositional human (or ape) forces, or slowly attempting to rebuild civilization. Director Craig Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi’s Z for Zachariah, loosely based on the Robert O’Brein novel, ignores these conventions and instead uses its post-apocalyptic scenario as the background for a sensitive and soulful drama that looks unlike any doomsday seen before.
Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) is the sole survivor of a radiation leak that has presumably killed the rest of mankind, but has seen fit to leave her valley, a veritable Garden of Eden, and the life within it safe from harm. Cinematographer Tim Orr’s soft photography and the film’s cool color palette are put to use to establish the tranquility and safety of Ann’s home. There are scant traces of the apocalypse at Ann’s doorstep and while we see her struggling to maintain resources there seems to be very little ugliness in her lonely existence. Other than her dog Pharaoh, her father’s church and the photographs that fill her surprisingly clean home are all that she has left to remind her of the way things used to be.
This focus on beauty and tranquility will likely bore some audiences, particularly those expecting typical post-apocalyptic, genre fare, as the picture remains free of conventional conflict for much of its runtime. When Ann comes upon a man in a biohazard suit, dragging some kind of mobile housing unit behind him, her immediate instinct is to be wary. The cart and suit belong to Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist that escaped the world-ending threat by finding shelter in a bunker. Ann soon learns that he has been seeking signs of life and civilization ever since he was forced out of safety. A typical film would immediately cast Loomis as source of tension, even violence, for Ann to overcome, but Zobel and Modi have other thoughts on their minds.
Loomis, a man of science, immediately seizes upon the opportunities that Ann’s secluded valley provides for rebuilding humanity. This means tearing down the church Ann’s father built to construct a water wheel and beginning the process of repopulation with a complete stranger. Strangely enough, little conflict is born from these ideas. The characters behave like adults and even manage to find a shared experience that brings them together. Romance begins to blossom between the two, until the mysterious appearance of a dirty, scarred man appears on their doorstep. That man is Caleb (Chris Pine) and once cleaned up, he’s an even better match for Ann; his impossibly blue eyes always manage to find hers and he’s had a similar religious upbringing on a farm.
For a brief moment, Z for Zachariah flirts with devolving into a Nicholas Sparksian love-triangle drama with a focus on the jealousy that courses between the furtive glances shared between Loomis and Caleb. It’s evidence to how fully-fleshed out the film’s characters are that even the briefest, most subtle romantic tension between the characters provides more than enough conflict to fill the film. The characters’ true intentions, insecurities, and flawed humanities slowly culminate in a brief moment of mysterious, possibly nonexistent, violence that leaves a haunting specter over the final moments of the film.
Zobel allows his cast to do the heavy lifting that Modi’s subtle script needs to suffuse the picture with its inherent drama. Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, Focus) and Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) are both hugely charismatic actors that bring real emotional lives to their characters. Robbie has become known for her fast-talking, glamorous roles, so it is reassuring to see her prove her range as a dramatic actress, who I continue to assert has the potential to become a major star. Ejiofor’s Loomis explodes into emotion when he discovers Ann’s lush valley, recalling moments from his Academy Award-winning role as Solomon Northrup. Pine has established himself as a good-looking, sharp-witted hero in the Star Trek films; here it is refreshing to see him turn in a low-key, damaged, but soulful performance.
Z for Zachariah’s slow-burn pacing will likely put off filmgoers looking for a conventional post-apocalyptic picture, but those seeking a haunting look at the subtle, deleterious parts of humanity will be hugely rewarded. The film asks audiences to reconsider their religious beliefs, the role of technology, and our ties to our racial identifiers all before asking its most potent question: What forces do we allow to control our lives? In the face of the apocalypse, it seems almost nothing has changed.