The end of the world has struck in Craig Zobel’s atmospheric mood piece Z for Zachariah. And all is actually quite peaceful in this admirable, if not quite stirring, loose adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 Edgar Award winning science fiction novel of the same name. Set some time after a nuclear devastation has wiped off most of humanity, the movie is more attuned to the personal effects of its three (and only) characters- each of whom are sensitively portrayed by the attractive trio of Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Chris Pine (Into the Woods).
End of days tales are often-trodden by filmmakers- recent entries in the apocalyptic canon run the gamut from the super-mainstream (The Hunger Games, Mad Max), to the R-rated and silly (This Is the End, Zombieland, The World’s End) to the auteur-tinted (Snowpiercer, Melancholia)- and there’s ample reasons why the sub-genre has always been fertile ground for cinema. You can’t get much more dramatic and terrifying than the threat of the end of the world (unless, of course, we’re talking about a Marvel movie but that’s another subject altogether). The influx of end of the world tales in our modern culture has greater resonance in our very current world of ever-changing weather patterns, compromised resources and real world human terror.
With that, it’s slightly refreshing- at least on the onset- that Z for Zachariah is such a quiet, restrained piece of work. There’s no mention of the politics and machinations that led to humanity’s downfall. Instead, the film focuses on a small farming village where somehow, some way, life was able to go on. This is where Ann (Robbie), a resourceful young farmhand resides and believes herself to be the last of the human race- her father and younger brother ventured out sometime ago and haven’t and seem unlikely returned. That changes with the sudden arrival of Loomis (Ejiofor), a scientist who ventures on to the land, stripes off his radiation suit and jumps ecstatically into what turns out to be a highly radioactive stream. Fortunately Ann, ever dutiful and even more ecstatic for human (male) company, comes quickly to his rescue. Of course, romance by way of apocalypse.
It’s hardly the worst meet-cute scenario but lays the groundwork effectively that Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi have deeper ambitions in mind: namely setting the stage for matters of the biblical sort- a Edenic redo, if you will. The early scenes focusing on the blossoming relationship between Ann and Loomis are the strongest in the entire movie even if the ying-yang dynamics of the characters read a bit too on the nose. Attentive, earthy and devout, Ann believes there’s a deeper reason why she’s survived and why Loomis was brought to her. The joy in her lonely life is spent exclusively at the neighboring chapel her father built long ago. Loomis, alternatively, is a colder, more resolute logician, an academic always looking for cause and effect- like say, perhaps that very same chapel built by Ann’s father could be torn down and retrofitted into a hydroelectric water wheel to supply power to the house. The duo, and their tentative purpose to re-populate the earth, are put on hold with the abrupt arrival of a third- a mysterious drifter named Caleb (Pine). From there, the movie more or less devolves into a triangle with two Adams but only one Eve.
There’s plenty of heady ideas at play- theological, sexual and racial- and cinematographer Tim Orr (a frequent David Gordon Green collaborator) provides lush, vivid widescreen vistas and plenty of evocative visuals. However, the movie never quite gains much momentum or suspense in this three character play. The story is tad too diagrammed and the pace too sleepy to spark much in way of drama; the films feels constantly set on low heat. It’s all a bit too classy and too refined when there should be a greater sense of danger and fury- this is the end of the world for crying out loud, not a CW soap opera. It’s especially surprising considering Zobel’s last film was the tart 2012 provocation Compliance, a film that was soaked in a non-stop swell of dread and danger. Z for Zachariah, while certainly polished and sometimes even elegant, becomes more and more limp and strangely inert as it shrugs along.
The most striking element, and perhaps the one most attentively developed, is Ann’s sense of faith. The filmmakers are hardly pandering to the faith-based set nor attempt to dull or condescend to Ann’s yearn to believe; her values are expressed with an openhearted honesty and intelligence and never dismissed as hillbilly hokum. She’s the hero of the movie and Robbie is easily Z for Zachariah‘s most valuable player. There’s an ease and illuminating naturalism to her work here- somewhat reminiscent of a young Sissy Spacek- that’s in stark contrast to her breakthrough role as the sassy Long Islander she portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. The actress palpably and sensitively adds dimension and roots a growing sense of guile in Ann which is transfixing to behold on screen, particularly notable in a movie that’s built around decidedly and purposefully tranquil moments. An achievement like that beckons only one response: a movie star has arrived.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Beautifully composed and featuring nicely nuaned performances from its three leads, Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah is solid, if far from revelatory arthouse fare showcasing an intimate, human portrait of the end of the world. While it’s slightly refreshing to see a doomsday picture free of bombast, if there’s a fault, it may just be that Zobel’s vision is a tad too restrained, too quiet and too measured for its own good. All of which makes the drama (all of which, considering the scenario, consists of fairly dire stuff) feel strangely inert when it should swell. In the end, Z for Zachariah will likely serve in memory as a footnote in the potentially huge future career trajectory of magnetic leading lady Margot Robbie.