The post-apocalyptic genre is a pretty popular one. People are intrigued with the ultimate questions: What will happen to us in the future? Will we see humanity’s end? If so, how? And interestingly enough, this genre has answered these questions in a several different ways, in several different stories. Zombies and autocratic governments usually take front and center, so it’s a bit refreshing when directors like Craig Zobel, who is no stranger to the Sundance Film Festival, breathes fresh air into this genre by choosing to focus on our humanity, our instincts, emotions, and personal relationships in the midst of possibly being the last people on Earth in Z for Zachariah.
Anne (Margot Robbie) lives alone, in a large valley stretching for miles. Everyone else around her has died or disappeared, the environment in the neighboring towns radioactive, and a radioactive suit required to get in and out of town. With no one but her dog, Anne works the farm the way her father taught her to and plays the organ at the small church he used to be a pastor of for who knows how long alone.
On an average day while hunting, Anne happens upon another human being, a man named Dr. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whom she nurses back to health after he accidentally encounters radioactive waters and gets sick. Anne trustingly allows him into her life and they begin to make plans for a future together. They obviously begin caring for each other, and the two are more hopeful now that they have each other. However, the arrival of a stranger named Caleb (Chris Pine), who seems to have more in common with Anne initially, complicates their relationship and really reveals things within each of them that they would have otherwise ignored.
You realize immediately that this isn’t your stereotypical post apocalyptic film. For one thing, it feels more natural in that there’s no tension at first, nothing really to fight, no physical monster, just surviving on what’s left. Craig Zobel creates a beautiful atmosphere that only uses the end of days type setting in order to focus on these characters and the psychology of human actions in an isolated setting. And Zobel does this very effectively.
The film, which is based on the book by the same name and authored by Robert C. O’Brien, obviously takes creative liberty with the material from the book, firstly adding in the character of Caleb in order to create more of an interesting dynamic, and secondly only hinting at a more abusive relationship between two of the characters but never taking it that far like the book does.
Margot Robbie really shines in her role as Anne and really separates her from the character she played in Wolf of Wall Street. As Anne, Robbie is sensitive, strong, trusting of her companions almost to a fault, and unsure in a lot of ways. Her character is never particularly sexualized and that’s a feat considering some of the film falls into being a love triangle. Speaking of the love triangle, which is something that’s usually so overused and an excuse for some weak drama, it really works here because it’s used as more of an analysis of the human psyche.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is fantastic as always, his ability to be so expressive with his eyes is always impressive and wonderful to behold. He gives Loomis depth and you’re torn between feeling different things about him. And Chris Pine, who we’re used to seeing in more ensemble casts, seems to be branching out and flexing more of his dramatic acting chops, his character being the least developed and therefore the most unpredictable, which gives his character more room to be questionable. The three of them make for a great cat and while they have onscreen chemistry, there’s also an underlying tension between their characters.
The film is beautifully nuanced and ambiguous in a lot of ways. It doesn’t always tell us everything that’s happening through words but instead Zobel allows the actors to communicate through glances and subtlety. The ending is left open to interpretation even when there’s a heavy implication of what could happen.
Ultimately, Craig Zobel brings together a great cast to tell a dynamic and engaging story that explores human instincts and how that may even stand in the way of survival because of primal actions. Z for Zachariah is beautifully made, has wonderful storytelling, is subtle without being unclear, and has a lot of food for thought. A film that works in many ways and is a must watch.