The sci-fi drama Z for Zachariah arrives in theaters with an unfair disadvantage. While director Craig Zobel adapts a novel from 1974, audiences will recognize the film’s premise and drama from another source: the sitcom Last Man on Earth. The show unintentionally robs Zachariah of its agency, which is ironic since Zobel’s latest is more meditative and lyrical than the bizarre, sex-crazed comedy created by Will Forte. Even with an economy of characters, Zobel and his talented cast created a lonely world where expectations and desire are still more important than shared humanity.
Ann (Margot Robbie) must believe she is the only one left. She lives in a fertile valley, one where plants and animals still thrive, but nuclear fallout killed everything beyond it. One day she hears someone: a man with a Giger counter pauses on the road, and screams out of joy/relief once he takes off his radiation suit. Ann follows the man, and their first encounter is chaotic: he bathes in a nearby waterfall, and she struggles to tell him the water is contaminated. While he convalesces in her home, we learn his name is John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and he worked as a scientist. Together Ann and John start to rebuild: he gets the tractor running, and his plans to use the waterfall as an energy source. There is also sexual tension between them, and it never quite resolves since Ann also meets Caleb (Chris Pine), a miner who managed to survive the calamity. John feels threatened as Caleb charms Ann, and in this untenable situation everyone must force their hand.
The key to this unlikely trio is Ann’s age. In the original novel, Ann is explicitly a teenager while the two men are adults. Zobel hints at Ann’s youth and inexperience, but never says her age directly: the closest reference is when she mentions that she had a thirteen year old brother. For all intents and purposes, she does not know much about how men behave, so there is suspense in her interactions with John and Caleb. Neither of them are bad, exactly, but they are not perfect, either. There are moments where we fear for her – John is a drunk, and Ann does not handle it well – yet she also has moments of genuine confidence. Zobel’s unobtrusive style is a good fit for the material, with a mix of sunny cinematography and details that suggest that none of the three characters ever experienced true despair, his dialogue scenes are more impressively staged. Loneliness is the reality for these three souls, and Zobel by extension loses interest in it, too. So do we.
The push/pull between Ann and the other two men drive the climax for Z for Zachariah, and the interesting twist is how the post-apocalyptic conceit quickly falls by the wayside as more banal, common differences take their place. In their discussion of rebuilding, John sees how Caleb is a better fit for Ann than he is. Ejiofor has the most complex role in the film, and his eyes betray how he veers between desire and desperation. Robbie and Pine are convincing, too, yet John’s arc is the film’s moral center since he is the only one to contend with the new world in a moral sense. The literate, quiet script by Nissar Modi is about preservation versus innovation – Ann and Caleb are Christians, while John has no room for God – and the ambiguous final scenes give no answers over which value matter most. Many post-apocalyptic films about the need for hope, and perseverance against seemingly impossible odds. Z for Zachariah is more allegorical than that. It presents us with a sliver of paradise, and asks who actually deserves it.