Z for Zachariah (2015) / Drama-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, partial nudity, and brief strong language
Running Time: 95 min.

Cast: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine
Director: Craig Zobel
Screenplay: Nissar Modi (based on the novel by Robert C. O'Brien)

Review published August 31, 2015

Robert C. O'Brien's 1974 science fiction novel loosely provides the basis for this movie adaptation that keeps its scope small, but the thespian fire-power mostly high, enough to engage beyond the simple story into being surprisingly rich thematically, full of interesting symbolism.

Margot Robbie (Focus, The Wolf of Wall Street) stars as Ann, daughter of the town preacher and perhaps one of few healthy survivors of a global nuclear apocalypse, living in seclusion awaiting the return of her father and younger brother in the only spot in the vicinity seemingly unaffected by the ravages of radiation, where crops can still yield good food.  It's a great life, as lives go these days, but without someone to share it with, things are mightily lonely for a young farm girl.  Soon enough, however, she is not alone anymore, when a radiation-poisoned Loomis enters the area from outside, looking for sustenance to stay alive.  John Loomis (Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave), an engineer by his former trade, stays on the farm until he can get back on his feet, eventually helping to fix many of the things that no longer work around the farm, and the two soon find a romantic bond, perhaps a necessary one if they are the human race's best chance for a positive future.  But they aren't, as Caleb (Pine, Into the Woods) soon enters the scene, causing tension and jealousy in the middle of a burgeoning sustainable paradise.

Z for Zachariah is a bit slow and methodical, but excellent actors Robbie and Ejiofor fully sell their characters and the current situation with full investment, imbuing the straight-forward story with the kind of nuance that makes a two-hander storyline feeling complex and substantive through its gender-politics subtext.  This subtext didn't appear in O'Brien's original novel, which only featured Ann and Loomis as characters.  Some have noted that the love triangle element and its racial component makes it more of a successor to the 1959 Harry Belafonte vehicle, The World the Flesh and the Devil, than as a faithful adaptation of the source novel. Chris Pine is perhaps the weakest link in the film, not because he is a bad actor, but because he's not quite at that level of the other two actors, who elevate the material by fleshing out full characters  beyond just whatever's written in the script for them to do or say.

O'Brien's novel is adapted with precision by Nissar Modi (Breaking at the Edge), and directed without overplaying the basic storyline by Craig Zobel (Compliance, Great World of Sound), which allows the seclusion and lack of complication of the farm life, set somewhere in the southern United States but filmed in lush New Zealand, to fully sink in before another visitor enters the scene to potentially disturb the balance that had already been forming for what we presume is weeks, perhaps months, gone by.  The participants in the story are lonely, needing human connection in a world that no longer fosters it, as well as love, affection, and safety.  The downside to this being that, once these emotional connections are obtained, they aren't easy to give up, which leads to a dilemma of sorts for this potential love triangle -- how can happiness and tranquility be achieved in a realm where potential jealousy, paranoia, and deception have entered the mix?

Despite want you might glean from the promotional material, Z for Zachariah is not a soapy romance or a domestic thriller, even if it could have easily been shaped into one given the material.  It's also not built for science fiction fans, even though its premise is firmly in the genre.  It's more a contemplative morality tale drama, with strong religious overtones, delving deeply into human frailty and folly in ways that at times does feel as Biblical as the story's title.  Though life on Earth has been given a virtual reset button that should bode well in assuring racial inequality will no longer be an issue, it's interesting to note how understated this dynamic is, especially in how Loomis feels when a White pretty-boy enters the scene, thinking that the battle may already be lost once Ann sees a God-fearing local contemporary she was probably raised since birth to be the match for, and definitely not the older, Black atheist her Southern reverend father would have admonished her to stay well away from.  Though the two White characters never mention it, Loomis brings it up in a bit of anguish and jealousy, pushing away an already confused virgin with no known experience with romantic interplay practically into the arms of the only rival in town.

The title's significance is echoed when Loomis finds a Sunday School book in Ann's home library called, "A is for Adam", the first man on Earth, leading one to believe that the metaphorical Zachariah must refer to the last man. Adam existed in an Eden before his weakness gave way to the Fall of Man, while the culmination of Man's great fall, the near annihilation of all humankind, has resulted in a new "Eden", with new hope for the Rise of Man.  But Loomis is not the last man, the Zachariah, because there is another man here, and the story shows us that, even with a fresh start and hard lessons learned, humans will always succumb to their basest instincts when left to our own devices when, as it had been in the Book of Genesis, temptation and envy push us toward sin.

Some of that symbolism is inferred when Loomis suggest that they tear down Ann's father's church in order to use the wood to make a waterwheel in order to generate the power needed to bring electricity back into the home.  Ann is understandably reticent to see not only her father's place taken down, but also her Holy Father's, and though Loomis doesn't see why in this stage of apocalypse that such beliefs should still continue to be held, he respects those beliefs that he doesn't share, and waits for her to give the approval.  Loomis also respects her space, even though she is willing to bridge the gap, as he knows he is not the number one man in her life, after her father, her brother, and her God, and later, perhaps, Caleb.  He feels he keeps falling down the totem pole when he should be the top for all he has done to assure her well-being, but he either has to accept his fate in her heart, or to control the situation and knock down all of the competition.

But as much as it is Old Testament, it's also Darwinian theory, with a survival-of-the-fittest scenario that suggest that the person who is willing to commit the greatest sin is the strain that will inherit the Earth.  Rife with choice material to discuss afterward, Z for Zachariah works best if you can contemplate its artistic interpretations rather than take it completely at face value, as there's much more going on than just a simple love triangle sudser.  It's a cynical pill, if one looks at it a certain way, about the futility of humanity when, even if we had free reign for a '"do over" for paradise on Earth with basically good people, humankind will find a way to lie, cheat, steal, and murder one another to get our way.  There's a lesson to be learned from Z for Zachariah, but it's never a sermon.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo