Films with a post-apocalyptic setting tend to be cut from the same mold, but Z for Zachariah is the second film I’ve viewed this week that breaks from tradition to explore the aftermath of worldwide devastation from a completely different perspective. Whereas Turbo Kid took a very tongue-in-cheek, almost satirical approach to the examining the remnants of society after a global disaster, the latest offering from director Craig Zobel does the exact opposite: it’s quiet, subtle, and often ambiguous.
An indeterminate amount of time has passed since the calamity – whatever it was – reduced the Earth to a hostile, radioactive wasteland, but somehow a small patch of land somewhere in the Midwestern United States was spared from destruction. In this isolated valley lives Annie (Margot Robbie), a farm girl trying to cope with the idea that she might be the last remaining human on the planet.
That changes with the arrival of John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist who stumbles into Annie’s little corner of the universe clad head-to-toe in a biohazard suit. Loomis has been scouring the countryside for any place that might be inhabitable, and he’s so elated to discover clean air that he strips off the suit and bellows at the sky, tears streaming down his face. Annie keeps her distance at first, but when Loomis makes a grave mistake that leaves him with a severe case of radiation poisoning, she quickly steps in to rescue him.
As Loomis is slowly nursed back to health, a trust begins to develop between the survivors, and that trust lays the foundation for a friendship, and perhaps something more. Loomis has some radical ideas about restoring electricity to the valley, but his methodology would require a major sacrifice on Annie’s part – not to mention forcing her to come to grips with just how alone they truly are.
Their relationship is further complicated when Caleb (Chris Pine) wanders into their midst. Disheveled and exhausted, he claims to be headed South toward a refuge for survivors, but he doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to move along. Annie is thrilled to have another guest in the house, and the fact that Caleb is young and handsome sparks something in her while simultaneously igniting the flame of jealousy in Loomis, who would like nothing more than to send this stranger packing.
Pine exudes a dangerous mix of menace and charisma here, delivering his dialogue with a slow southern drawl that would be charming if it weren’t so creepy. Ejiofor is equally superb as Loomis, a good man (we think) haunted by the decisions he was forced to make to stay alive in this new world. But it’s Robbie that truly shines here, disappearing into a character that resides at the opposite end of the spectrum from the role she played in The Wolf of Wall Street. Annie feels neither contrived nor conjured – we just accept that she exists, and the rest of the film build itself around that acceptance.
Unlike most post-apocalyptic fare, Z for Zachariah is devoid of huge action set pieces – this is a film about human nature, about uncertainty and paranoia and loneliness and all the feelings that drive our actions, regardless of the circumstances. It’s subdued and understated, laced with mounting tension that never quite boils over and full of questions that Zobel refuses to answer. And that’s okay – in many ways, the film is about things left unsaid, so it seems only fitting that it shouldn’t tell us everything.
Quiet, subtle and often ambiguous, Z for Zachariah is a wonderful little post-apocalyptic film about human nature, about obsession and doubt and all the feelings that drive our actions.