(Iceland/Switzerland/New Zealand, 97 min.)
Dir. Craig Zobel, Writ. Nissar Moodi
Starring: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine
Adaptations of young adult literature are a-plenty, but depth in this stream of YA-to-screen endeavors is often scarce. Z for Zachariah, alternatively, exceeds the limitations of many YA adaptations because this take on Richard C. O’Brien’s novel doesn’t cater to the teen demographic. One could instead argue that Z for Zachariah betrays its literary origins by offering a perceptive dystopian drama that breathes life into the YA world; however, young readers and young viewers are bound to find the film as equally accessible as the book is, since this minimalist drama finds power in understatement. With only three actors and a great story, Z for Zachariah tackles some of the most fundamental questions of human nature with philosophical depth.
Z for Zachariah is now on home video after enjoying a sleeper-hit status after playing the smarthouse circuit in a summer release, and it’s likely to find second wind as film fans search for hidden gems amidst the video lists. The film calls to mind John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road with its stark first images, although it’s worth noting that O’Brien’s novel predates Cormac McCarthy’s The Road by over thirty years, but the film offers favourable comparisons to The Road for its sparse and sober realization of a post-apocalyptic world.
This loose take on Z for Zachariah stars Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, Suite Française) as Ann Burden, a lone survivor remaining after a nuclear catastrophe decimated the world. Ann remains alone with her dog Faro in a lush verdant oasis surrounded by the doom and gloom ruins of civilization. For one reason or another, and for reasons that Z for Zachariah smartly withholds, Ann’s farm and the outlying area endure, green and untainted, while the rest of the world is barren and dead.
Ann seems alone until she encounters a man in a safe suit, who walks the road and reads radiation ratings in search for safety. That man is John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave), whom Ann is relieved to see after spending a year and a very hard winter in isolation. Loomis, much edgier than Ann, draws a gun but soon sees an ally. They form a quick bond in mutual survival as Ann invites John into her home and he helps cultivate the land in turn.
The script by Nissar Moodi paces Z for Zachariah smartly as Ann and Loomis develop trust and glow through the sustenance of human connection that restores them like a good dose of vitamin C and chicken soup after a cold. The film naturally finds a love story in their tale of survival as Loomis introduces the idea of “rebuilding” and “starting again.” Whether Ann and John are the only lover left alive on Earth is initially unclear, as the film withholds the context of the catastrophe and restricts references to the world outside the safe zone of Ann’s farm to references of death and misery. Ann and John forge a deeper connection, a bit forcefully on John’s part and a bit reluctantly on Ann’s end, and the film asks if they see their encounter as a fate of star-crossed lovers or as an act of fate that tasks them with repopulating the world.
The romance is as ambiguous as the post-apocalyptic setting, as both Robbie and Ejiofor approach their characters not as lovers or romantics, but as basic humans conflicted with existential questions that extend them. Is love even relevant if they’re the only female and male on Earth? Could two people who wouldn’t love each other under different circumstances forge a relationship under extremes? Robbie is very strong as Ann, who wrestles with questions of faith, family, and loyalty. Her Ann is an innocent in the world and embodies a hopefulness and optimism as if she’s the last lingering light. Ejiofor, on the other hand, gives a complexly layered performance as Loomis. The subtle paranoia of Ejiofor’s performance makes the character difficult to read. He, like the world of Z for Zachariah, is an enigma.
The relationship between Ann and John complicates itself further when a third party, Caleb (Chris Pine), enters the green space of Ann’s garden. Competition for Ann becomes fierce as Loomis sees Caleb as a threat and vice versa. A bond for survival is now a love triangle, and a winner/loser dynamic is in the air as both men tacitly try to prove themselves the better. Neither man is to be trusted, although director Craig Zobel (who so boldly tests the limits of human gullibility in Compliance) shifts the balance and the audience’s allegiance as either man could be friend or foe. The film adopts a morality play as essential human drives conflict with the survival of all three players, while the casting of Ejiofor and Pine as romantic rivals introduces a provocative element of race to the love triangle. On one level, Loomi's success and potential to populate the world with Ann means an end to racial divides, while Cabel's conquest over Loomis threatens a whitewashed world as the human race endures as a homogeneous if he and Ann are left to replenish the world.
Z for Zachariah creates an intriguing world through character and atmosphere as the minimalism of Zobel’s direction relies on the triangular conflict between Ann, Loomis, and Caleb, and leaves the audience with an uncertain world. The three-handed drama lets the trio of actors develop strong relationships and find depth and nuance to their characters as they challenge the audience to see them as worthy contenders to keep the human race afloat. If survival of the fittest is the endgame, Z for Zachariah is an Alpha among YA adaptations.
A/V: The 1080p Blu-ray transfer translates well to home video screens as the faded palette of Z for Zachariah lets the greenery of the landscape pop out amidst grey skies. Sound levels are fine in the Dolby 5.1 True HD tracks. The effective and restrained use of music lets the film play well on a variety of personal and home theatre systems.
Extras: Bonus features in Z for Zachariah follow the film’s philosophy of “less is more,” as the film omits a director commentary (which would undermine the subtlety of the direction, anyways) and offers a concise “Making of” featurette that includes highlight scenes with interviews from Zobel, Robbie, Ejiofor, Pine, and Moodi discussing the themes, characters, and world of Z for Zachariah. Audiences looking for more can head to the bonus feature of extended interviews with the cast and crew, from which the snippets of the making of featurette are drawn, with Ejiofor’s take on Loomis proving especially insightful and Robbie’s Australian accent and spark giving viewers extra reasons to appreciate the understatement of her performance as Ann. Pine doesn’t appear in the interview feature, but his sound bites in the “making of” featurette don’t leave one wanting to hear more from him, either. A handful of deleted scenes are worth watching, including some that accentuate the uncertainty of Loomis’s allegiance to Ann in the first half of the film. (Bonus features accompany the Blu-ray disc.)
Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Z for Zachariah is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD from VVS Films.