“Z for Zachariah” is a post-apocalyptic morality tale. Its star-studded cast and compelling premise have made it one of the more buzz-worthy submissions to this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But unfortunately, the final product fails to realize its full potential.
The entire film is set somewhere in the Appalachian United States (though it was shot in New Zealand). A ghost town tells us that something terrible has happened, but we never get much detail aside from references to radiation. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to have impacted the idyllic mountain landscape.
The first character we meet is Ann (Margot Robbie). Ann is a devout young Christian woman who has been tending to her family farm ever since her father and brother set out to find survivors a year earlier.
The farm seems to be one of the few, if not only, locations untouched by the poisonous radiation. Ann recognizes this as a miracle, though her lack of mechanical prowess and growing loneliness have been taking an increasing toll on her resolve.
Enter Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist dressed up in a glorified HazMat suit who shows up dragging his life’s belongings in a hand-pulled trailer. He is thrilled to discover the mountain oasis, though slow to recognize its divine hand. Ann is grateful for the company, especially since Loomis happens to have all the mechanical know-how they need to restore some semblance of their previous lives.
He and Ann begin a pensive relationship that stumbles when Loomis suggests they tear down the local church to build a water wheel and restore electricity. Still, presuming the two of them are going to have to restore the entire human race, Ann offers herself to Loomis, but in a very non-Hollywood fashion, he decides they should take things slow.
Then again, slow might not be a good idea in the post-apocalypse. The next day, an ex-mine worker named Caleb (Chris Pine) shows up, and in no time, three becomes a crowd. Caleb professes to be a believer like Ann, but the look in his eye begs for a curly pencil mustache and a black top hat.
So Ann wrestles with her affections for each man, and they wrestle with their growing resentment of each other. Each character has enough material to be interesting, but none get enough depth to be compelling.
Robbie is appealing as Ann, but never demonstrates the true cracks that are supposed to be forming on her tough farm girl façade. Ejiofor brings the same dignity to this role that he has shown elsewhere (audiences will recognize him from last year’s “12 Years a Slave”), but his insightful moments fail to truly elevate. And Pine’s Caleb never feels like anything but the obvious bad guy.
Part of the problem could be the decidedly non-apocalyptic setting. “Z” is science fiction without the sci-fi budget. We get the feeling this trio comprises the last three people on the face of the Earth, but we don’t have enough scope to know for sure. Without comparison, it’s hard to know if these three are truly trapped in a bottle.
Based on a novel by Robert C. O’Brien, and directed by Craig Zobel, “Z” leaves you wondering what might have been. You want these three to be the post-apocalyptic equivalent of "Jaws'"Brody, Quint and Hooper, but the radioactive shark circling the farm never shows up for the third act.
Instead, “Z” puts a lot of moral questions on the table, but doesn’t provide much in the way of answers. Ambiguity can be a powerful thing in film, but “Z” becomes a thoughtful exercise where it could have been a resonant experience.
“Z for Zachariah” is not rated, but will probably draw a PG-13 for some profanity (including a single use of the F-word) and sexual content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at https://www.facebook.com/joshterryreviews.