Z for Zachariah (2015)

Z for Zachariah (2015)
  • Time: 95 min
  • Genre: Drama | Sci-Fi | Thriller
  • Director: Craig Zobel
  • Cast: Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor


In the wake of a disaster that wipes out most of civilization, two men and a young woman find themselves in an emotionally charged love triangle as the last known survivors.


  • Z for Zachariah is a parable of postlapsarian loss. In a verdant valley miraculously saved from a nuclear apocalypse a young woman and her dog are joined first by a black engineer and then by a young white miner. Together they convert the girl’s father’s church into a water wheel that will use a radioactive waterfall to generate electricity. The wood from the church will help them rebuild human society. But the new world perpetuates the tensions of the old, including romantic emotions and racial tension.
    The radioactive water points to mankind’s corruption of the source of life, the poisoning of purity. Indeed director Craig Zobel converts a survival novel into a religious drama by adding a character to the original two-person novel and developing the religious imagery.
    The title recalls a book that engineer John Loomis takes off a shelf: A is for Adam. The film dramatizes the end of that Biblical story, replaying the myth of Eden after the apocalypse. Zachariah is the prophet murdered between the temple and the altar, the last of the killed prophets, so the name embodies the new narrative as a whole.
    The heroine Ann Burden carries the burden of innocence and faith when she struggles alone with her dog to survive. When she finds engineer John bathing in a radioactive pool she nurses him back to life. They develop a relationship of respect and interdependence. Drunk on beer, Loomis briefly confronts Ann with his vulgar carnality from which he retreats apologetic.
    Through the sacrament of wine Ann approaches John on her own terms and invites an intimate relationship. But John retreats, desiring her closeness but fearing the change that a sexual relationship would make. He’s inhibited by both their age and their colour difference. The scene in which Ann comes to him and he embraces her with a tender self-denial expresses the desire for a deep connection through the body but not carnal.
    The serpent in Eden — added to the source novel — is young white Caleb, whose “Mr Loomis” is a condescending formality by which he insinuates himself between his two hosts. The scene in which Ann chooses Caleb over John begins with their excessive use of wine, non-sacramental, and another baptism parody when the three cavort in the water. John is finally moved to confess his love to Ann, but when she comes to him he’s drunk and unconscious. She surrenders her purity to Caleb instead, waiting when he comes out of the shower. This scene parallels her finding John under a waterfall and parodies their truer love scene, a literal purification parodying the authentic.
    Margot Robbie marvelously suggests her character’s transition from Innocence to Experience. After Caleb, her eyes are darker, more knowing, her carriage heavier under the burden of experience, and we know she cannot revert to her earlier self, nor to her earlier relationship. In the last scene she plays a dirge on the church organ while John sits earnestly listening, his hands clasped in prayer as if in futile hope to recover what he had with her pre-Caleb. But you can’t recover a lost Eden. After sampling the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil innocence is gone.
    One by one the male figures drop out of Ann’s life. We see less of her dog after John appears and nothing at all with the arrival of Caleb. Caleb — named after one of Moses’s advance spies who encouraged the invasion of Canaan — becomes the animal figure in Ann’s life despite his pretence at being her fellow-believer, in contrast to the agnostic John. After losing Ann John arranges for Caleb’s disappearance. But he can’t erase the change Caleb wrought upon Ann.

  • Ann (Margot Robbie) may be the last woman on earth. Some inexpicable disaster has stripped the planet of the majority of its population. The residual radiation is a constant peril, but Ann has managed to survive due to the location of the mountain valley on which her farm is built. Separated from its surroundings and equipped with its own weather system, it is a self-sustaining land which has protected the young woman from the fate that befell her preacher father and younger brother, both of whom felt bound by moral duty to seek out other possible survivors.

    A year has passed since Ann was left on her own and, though she has a dog to keep her company, it is clear that she craves human contact. Her wish is granted with the arrival of John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who sheds his self-designed protective suit and lets out an elated cry at discovering the radiation-free land. He is as startled by her presence as she is intrigued by his and their initial standoff gives way to friendship when, after he is sickened by polluted waters, she nurses him back to health. Bless this man, she prays; she needs for him to stay with her and be healthy.

    A mutual attraction simmers though it is not without moments of discord. A research scientist who fled the safety of an underground bunker (“What I wanted from life wasn’t there.”), he applies his knowhow to improving their daily existence on the farmstead, suggesting they build a water wheel to generate electricity. The idea appeals until he mentions using the wood from the chapel her father built and preached in. She believes they wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for God, but John reasons that perhaps the chapel was placed there in order for them to rebuild, possibly even start a family.

    John’s remark prompts Ann to make an advance , which he gently refuses. They have all the time in the world, he says, but his acknowledgement of their attraction stirs something in the air. The next day, the scruffily handsome Caleb (Chris Pine) appears, having ventured out from the mine in which he was living after witnessing two men kill one another with their bare hands. John is wary of Caleb but the ever charitable Ann welcomes him into their home, and the emerging triangle proves increasingly untenable for all involved.

    Based on the posthumously published novel by Robert C. O’Brien, Z for Zachariah reshuffles the Genesis narrative into a compelling chamber piece. There are several key changes from the novel – raising Ann’s age past the jailbait mark, completely excising the escalating power play between Ann and John, and creating Caleb specifically for the film – but the film very much retains the thematic gist of O’Brien’s tale. The alterations result in a richer character drama where it is not necessarily “science that sours the paradise,” as Peter Ackroyd noted in his review of the novel for The Spectator, but rather the fundamental flaws in human circuitry.

    Director Craig Zobel, whose last film Compliance was an unsettling account of the horrors of human behaviour, imposes a percolating tone that assures subtlety and humanism when the story could have easily veered into the melodramatic and caricaturish. That patience in storytelling may prove too much for viewers, but it is a remarkably controlled tack that speaks volumes about Zobel’s confidence in Nissar Modi’s screenplay and the capabilities of his cast.

    Pine possesses a dangerous, daring glint in his eyes that is especially piercing during the pivotal nocturnal dip where the sexual tension and mutual suspicion between the three evolve from subtext into something far more pronounced and potentially threatening. Ejiofor is superb as the logician whose self-control is weakened by jealousy and roiling doubt. Robbie is convincing as Ann, whose sweet nature belies a formidable will. Her performance displays a new degree of emotional honesty that anchors the provocative, if occasionally flawed, Z for Zachariah.

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  • “It’s about… rebuilding.
    Maybe God… or your father… put this here for us.
    So we can… we can start again.
    Maybe that’s why we’re here… Just to start again.”

    The future prospects of our beloved world looks rather bleak, judging by the post-apocalyptic films of recent years. The endless series of disaster scenarios doesn’t bode well. “The Maze Runner”, “Divergent,” “Mad Max,” “Oblivion,” “The Hunger Games”, “Snowpiercer”, “Automata”, “How I live now”, “World War Z”, “The Well” … they all show a society that recovers on the ruins of a previous calamity. Similarly, “Z for Zachariah”. You won’t get a real explanation about the incident that led to a general extermination of our society. Reference is made to radioactivity and emerging nausea caused by polluted water. From this you can deduce that there might have been a nuclear war or accident in the past. But otherwise it is pure guesswork.

    It all started in an interesting way. A sober story with a sole survivor in a fertile valley (a “Garden of Eden” as it were), that was spared from the global holocaust one way or another. But this soberness gradually morphed into dullness. The emphasis gradually shifted from the apocalypse that took place in the world, to the complex, apocalyptic emotional world of a few surviving individuals. A love triangle is formed with reconstruction, religion, racial discrimination and jealousy as central themes. The fact that in all probability the world population was wiped out by a disaster, is relegated to the background and is only mentioned briefly afterwards as if it’s irrelevant. What remains is an ordinary but complicated love story.

    I came across the following perspicacious summary : “Z for Zachariah is a sex movie with a science-fiction coating and barely any sex.”. It can easily be added to the list where films such as “The Boy” and “Manglehorn” are appear in. Painfully slow films. What remains are the acting performances. An advantage (and maybe disadvantage at the same time) are the number of main characters. It’s limited to three. Margot Robbie as the devout, farmer’s daughter Ann Burden, who can drive a tractor to work the land without any problem but on the other hand feels rather inconvenient when it comes to intimate relations with someone of the male gender. Margot Robbie is a ravishing appearance as seen in “Focus”, “Suite française”, “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “About time”. Despite her fairly pathetic and bigoted look in this film, her natural beauty is still striking. She’s joined by Chiwetel “12 Years a Slave” Ejiofor as the scientist John Loomis who is being rescued from a certain death by Ann after taking a refreshing bath in a toxic pond. The group is completed with Chris Pine as the not so bad-looking miner Caleb. He thwarts John’s plans to re-populate the planet thoroughly.

    This film is based on the novella by Robert C. O’Brien from 1974. I myself haven’t read it and allegedly the film isn’t really consistent with the book. For example, there would be no question of a third person. Knowing this, I think I’ll let this book pass me, for even three people can’t ensure that there’s an intriguing, fascinating story. Let alone two. “Z for Zachariah” is a science fiction without much fiction, an erotically charged tale without eroticism and a pseudo-emotional story. Despite the nuclear disaster, the chemistry between the characters was hard to find.

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