Directed by: Craig Zobel.
Written by: Nissar Modi based on the novel by Robert C. O'Brien.
Starring: Margot Robbie (Ann Burden), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Loomis), Chris Pine (Caleb).
Z for Zachariah has a fascinating premise, that doesn’t get the attention it needs to become a fully fleshed out movie. It takes place somewhere in the rural United States, in an isolated valley, that has somehow remained immune for the nuclear event (or events) that has wiped out pretty much everyone else in America – and perhaps the world. In that valley, Ann (Margot Robbie), survives by herself by farming, and with whatever other supplies she can find. She is devout Christian, whose family all left to try and find other survivors, and never returned. Then, one day out of nowhere, someone else arrives. This is Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist who was deep underground when whatever happened happened, and (conveniently) he and his team was working on a containment suit, which has kept him alive in the outside world. He comes across Ann, who helps him when he makes what could have been a fatal mistake. She nurses him back to health. He knows how to build things – thinks he may even be able to get electricity back in their small house – although it would require tearing down Ann’s beloved church for the wood. Unlike Ann, Loomis is a non-believer. They do not much talk about faith – although it’s there between them.
The movie is based on the book (unread by me) by Robert C. O’Brien – which I imagine worked as a book better than it does as a movie. The two main characters are meant as stand-ins for the debate between religion vs. science – and with only two people left in the world, that debate takes on significant implications. They need the wood for the Church – which Ann argues is desperately needed for their spiritual health, which to her is akin to survival. But Loomis needs to the wood to make a wheel, to provide them with hydro-electricity – which will help them physically survive. That debate is perhaps enough to fill a novel – and could, in a better movie, be enough for a film as well. But Z for Zachariah decides it needs to up the ante a little bit – and introduces a third character. This is Caleb (Chris Pine), who shows up a little while after Loomis. Loomis and Ann have already started to move towards a sexual relationship – and Loomis (correctly) sees Caleb as a threat to that. He is younger than Loomis – more of Ann’s age – and he is white (although race is only mentioned once specifically in the movie, it hangs over the entirety of it) – not to mention the fact that he is also Christian, like Ann, and of course that he looks like Chris Pine. The movie then becomes a series of tense conversations, where everyone knows what everyone else is thinking and feeling, although no one will come right and out and say it.
The biggest problem with Z for Zachariah is that the movie never solves the problem of how to make these characters into real people, and not just symbols. The film has cast three good actors, but the two most important performances don’t really click. Robbie, who was so good in The Wolf of Wall Street, and proved she can be as charming as anyone, going toe-to-toe with Will Smith in Focus, is essentially a blank slate in the film – passive and unreadable. She struggles with the accent a little bit, and cannot pull off the naiveté that the role calls for. Part of this is the screenplay’s fault – it doesn’t give her very much to do, and she doesn’t do it. Chiwetal Ejiofor, one of the finest actors working, never quite makes Loomis believable either, partly because the screenplay requires him to do too much (if Ann never changes, than Loomis is seemingly changing every scene). The only performance that truly works is Pine’s – and that’s probably because the role requires nothing of him except to show up and be superficially charming – which Pine can do in his sleep.
The film was directed by Craig Zobel, whose last film was the brilliant Compliance, which made my top 10 list a few years ago. What the movies share is a lack of judgment of its characters – an ambiguity that allows the audience to read into the movie what they want to. In Compliance however, that ambiguity worked – it challenged the audience in a very specific way. Here, the ambiguity is ill-defined. It’s not that the movie won’t tell us what to think, it’s that is seems to leave out so much that it’s not really ambiguous, but rather just vague, ineffectual storytelling. The film at least looks great – which you expect when the cinematographer is the great Tim Orr – but the film itself never really gets to the heart of the issues it raises.