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'Z for Zachariah' Is the Anti-'Mad Max'

A post-apocalyptic pastoral turns primal radioactive love triangle in this throwback drama starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, and Chris Pine.

Z for Zachariah

Director: Craig Zobel
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, Chris Pine
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Roadside Attractions
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-08-28 (Limited release)

When Ann (Margot Robbie) first spots John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), it has been a year or more since she has seen another human being. She creeps forward, slowly, anxiously. The wrong move by this strange man would send her bolting into the woods like a nervous deer. But she’s drawn to him because, for all she knows, there are no other people alive on Earth.

Such is the risk and the strangeness during the early moments of Z for Zachariah, a post-apocalyptic drama focused not on marauding mutants, but on the old, awful standbys: fear, loneliness, cold, starvation.

The end of the world is never explained in this quiet film. A nuclear exchange seems likely, as we learn that just about everything is now radioactive, except, for somehow, the beautiful tree-covered valley where Ann has weathered the end of civilization. She's a good and God-fearing farm girl whose father left long ago in order to go look for survivors, followed by her younger brother. She has the awkward and fretful nature of somebody just out of her teens.

Though the film stops shy of saying it, Ann seems at a loss without her father or any man around to provide direction. She admits to John not long after his arrival that, after barely making it through the previous winter, she considered not bothering to go on. Still an innocent, she seems on the brink of realizing that she and this new world might not be compatible.

John should be Ann’s opposite. A decade or more older and a research scientist who weathered the war in a deep mine, he’s cool and areligious, bordering on aloof. Nevertheless, after Ann finds him flopping about in a pool of water he doesn’t realize is radioactive, she nurses him back to health; though whether it’s out of Christian compassion or a simple desire for something new to do is left open.

Although the performers bring radically different styles to their work -- Robbie’s enthusiastic immaturity is set against Ejiofor’s all-in emoting -- director Craig Zobel weaves them together into a frail and tender connection that skirts bathos without quite falling prey to it. With a romantic undertow tugging at their meaningful glances and pent-up cravings, they start trying to put something of a joined life together. Ann grows cautiously optimistic about the future, while John, whose first glimpse of the valley brought him to tears (glimpses of the world past the valley show a Mordor-like expanse of grey and ash), is bursting with hopes for “rebuilding” in ways that go beyond his plan to generate electricity from a nearby waterfall.

Nissar Modi’s spare screenplay is based on Richard O’Brien’s novel from 1974, when cinematic apocalypti were more likely to use the depopulated planet as a way to explore interpersonal and societal matters than to mount action spectacles. When Zobel’s closely observed story includes a strand that wasn’t in the novel -- a love triangle with the introduction of another survivor, Caleb (Chris Pine) -- the possibilities for melodrama multiply, but so do the chances to stalk bigger prey.

All of a sudden, the question of race enters this bucolic Eden, as does faith. Caleb, a handsome miner and believer in God, speaks the same mountain-town language as Ann. Caleb refers to John as “Mr. Loomis” in a way that sounds more like “boy”, while talking to the half-besotted Ann about “us believers”. John sullenly observes as the youngsters flirt with each other, his lack of romantic timing apparently having doomed his own chances.

The film doesn’t leave itself much room to maneuver once the dramatic mechanics of this threesome snap into place: it’s only a question of time before something has to give. Still, the writing is bare bones, which does allow for the performers -- even the usually unimpressive Pine, whose bright icy-blue stare is shaded with a sneaky malevolence here -- to scrape their interactions right down to the nerve. The problem is that so much is unexplained that the anticlimactic conclusion has a muted resonance.

Z for Zachariah's most frightening moments occur right at its beginning. Unlike the rest of the film, which was shot in a verdant and unspoiled corner of New Zealand, these scenes were filmed in West Virginia. Ann, still wearing a suit, digs through the ruins of her old hometown. With the exception of a few extra boarded up windows and some trash, the houses and streets could be from any number of poverty-blasted Appalachian towns imploding with unemployment and despair. Those are places where the end of the world, everyone fending for themselves and surrounded by environmental blight, doesn't seem so far off.


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