Making a name for himself in the independent film market with 2012’s profoundly disturbing Compliance, Craig Zobel has returned to the director’s chair for an adaptation of post-apocalyptic novel Z for Zachariah. Ann (Margot Robbie) lives alone in a lush, idyllic valley untouched by the radiation holocaust that has otherwise stripped the planet of its inhabitants. That is until John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) comes wandering into the land in a giant hazmat suit looking for signs of life. Ann and John strike up an uneasy partnership that evolves into something more loving and affectionate. Soon enough, strange events occur around their farm, followed by the appearance of a third survivor, the mysterious Caleb (Chris Pine). Caleb’s presence upsets the delicate balance of Ann and John’s relationship, offering a vulnerable spiritual side John seems to lack. It is the sort of love triangle that is destined for a messy end.
Zobel approaches the world with a subtle eye, choosing to de-emphasize the classic visual cues of established irradiated wastelands. This makes the film feel akin to Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek’s astounding (and outstanding) vision of dystopia hiding behind the shroud of the mundane. This gives those moments where the reality of their situation pierces the veil of the valley a more pointedly otherworldly quality, exemplified by John’s hazmat suit that seems to exist in the crossroads between 12 Monkeys and Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Cinematographer Tim Orr shoots it all with a meld of grace and distance, luxuriating in the beauty of it all predominantly as an outsider.
The other aspect of the film that sets it apart is, oddly enough, how conventional the story at its center actually is. This is very much a straightforward love triangle storyline that happens to take place in a world where most of humanity has died out. But in practice, that does not particularly change how everything plays out. Ejiofor acclimates himself well to the role of confident beau turned jealous cuckold, and between this and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Chris Pine is having quite the summer playing enigmatic recluses (their opposite tones making the feat even more impressive). Margot Robbie has not had a ton to work with in her two biggest roles previous to this one (The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus from earlier this year), but she does well with her first major lead.
The story may be conventional, but the setting and the acting makes Z for Zachariah a solid filmgoing experience.