Chris Pine, Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Z for Zachariah (Z4Z Film Production UK Ltd)
Post-apocalyptic movies don’t tend to be very happy affairs, given that any story that posits the destruction of nearly the entire human race usually isn’t going offer many lighthearted moments, but Z for Zachariah might be the most pessimistic out of all of them. The world in the film may have all but ended, but so long as there are two men, they’ll find a way to fight over a woman.
That the two men are fighting over Margot Robbie might make the situation a little more understandable, and that she is torn between Chiwetel Ejiofor as a sensitive scientist and Chris Pine as a sexy mine worker gives Robbie’s character’s dilemma a bit more heft than the situation deserves. In fact, the post-apocalyptic setting gives Z for Zachariah a bit more credibility than most love triangles. For most romantic entanglements, there is the sense that whoever doesn’t get the girl has other options. In the post-nuclear wasteland that has trapped the three characters as essentially the last three people on earth, there really is no other choice.
Robbie plays a stark departure from her star-making role as the Duchess of Bay Ridge in The Wolf of Wall Street. In a role that seems tailor-made for Jennifer Lawrence, Robbie plays Ann, a sweet but resourceful farm girl who has survived in the Appalachian Valley that has been untouched by the nuclear radiation that has killed most of humanity. Robbie brings something quite different to the role than Lawrence. Even in this role, Robbie cannot fully sublimate the vampish quality that makes her presence so refreshing. Robbie is reminiscent of Sharon Stone at the height of her career. There is always the promise that even this minister’s daughter can go very bad, and later scenes fulfill that promise.
Ejiofor may be best known for his Oscar-nominated role in the Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, but this film continues the actor’s streak as a welcome presence in intelligent science-fiction. Unlike Serenity and Children of Men, Ejiofor finally gets to carry a genre film. Science-fiction is rarely an acting showcase, but Ejiofor gets an unusually detailed role as Loomis, an alcoholic scientist consumed by jealousy.
Z for Zachariah may be a post-apocalyptic fantasy, but certain issues root it firmly in the real world. The love triangle among Robbie, Ejiofor and Pine obviously mark sex as an issue, but these issues are complicated by race, religion and class. This is the type of film that seems engineered for lively discussion afterward: Race divides Ejiofor’s character from Robbie’s and Pine’s, but class and religion complicate matters even further. Loomis is an atheist and a scientist from an upper-class background, while Ann and Pine’s Caleb are rural, blue-collar types who are devout Christians, a fact that Caleb exploits in order to turn Ann away from Loomis. It is refreshing that Z for Zachariah complicates the situation by making its African-American character an upper-class scientist, perhaps by necessity since Ejiofor radiates a deep intelligence that would be hard to mask.
Director Craig Zobel, best known for Compliance, keeps the action in Z for Zachariah at an intimate scale that is appropriate its characters’ interaction. The world may be ending, but with only three people left in their corner of the world, their personal interactions are all that matter. Almost alone among post-apocalyptic stories, Z for Zachariah understands that a nuclear holocaust may kill millions of people in one moment, but every individual dies one at a time.
Z for Zachariah
In theaters Aug. 28
Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).