Film Review: ‘Z for Zachariah’

Margot Robbie's the only reason to see this nuclear holocaust love-triangle
August 18, 2015 Updated: September 1, 2015

When universes blow up, according to Eastern philosophies, all lives get destroyed except for a few lucky ones who happened to be in exactly the right place, at the right time. Like Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived not one but both U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Japan. What are the odds?

Taking that concept as a template, the premise of “Z for Zachariah” works. There’s a valley, somewhere in the American South, that’s remained entirely unaffected by worldwide nuclear holocaust.

It’s a latter-day Garden of Eden (and it’s a good-looking movie, shot in Hobbit-land, New Zealand). Which means in terms of casting, we need Adam, Eve, the voice of the Almighty, a fruit tree, and a snake. Two Adams would make it very interesting—a Genesis love triangle. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie in "Z FOR Zachariah." (Courtesy of Roadside Attractions)
(L-R) Chris Pine, Margot Robbie, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Z for Zachariah.” (Roadside Attractions)

Adam and Eve

Twenty-something Ann Burden (current “It” girl Australian actress Margot Robbie from “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Focus,” sporting a dead-on Appalachian accent and no makeup) grew up on a farm, survived the holocaust, and thinks she’s the last human being on the planet.

She’s got an old dog, a hunting rifle, a small-game deadfall trap line, and no electricity. An organ in the tiny church her preacher-daddy built keeps her company, although all the music she knows how to play is exceedingly melancholy. It’s a seriously lonely existence.

He’s just not that into the stunningly beautiful, nubile, highly available (yearning, even), last farm girl on earth.

And then along the dusty road happens one John Loomis, an African-American research scientist (British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), wearing a silver “safe suit” he designed himself. He whips out his Geiger counter and finally gets a reading with no ominous clicks. Hallelujiah! Free at last from radiation tyranny, he jumps in a lake.

But Ann knows the lake’s waterfall brings radioactivity from outside the valley, and hollers John out of his happy bath, and scrubs him raw. Thus, in this new Eden—Eve begat Adam, and not from her own rib, but with the help of a scrub brush.

Without electricity, the chances are slim they can survive the winter. So engineer John suggests sacrificing the tiny church that Ann’s dad built for lumber, to carpenter up a hydroelectric water wheel to put under aforementioned radioactive waterfall. This brings up questions of theology and salvation, seeing as how she’s a preacher’s daughter and he’s a godless man of science.

Re-populate the Planet?

They get along, they get involved. Talk about your slim pickin’s. He’s not really her type, but she’s not really experienced enough to know any better and too lonely to care.

On the other hand, it seems he’s just not that into her. He’s just not that into the stunningly beautiful, nubile, highly available (yearning, even), last farm girl on earth? Sure. That could happen.

L-R: Margo Robbie as Ann, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as John as nuclear holocaust survivors in "Z for Zachariah" Photo credit: (Courtesy of Tim Orr/Roadside Attractions)
Margot Robbie as Ann and Chiwetel Ejiofor as John, nuclear holocaust survivors in “Z for Zachariah.” (Tim Orr/Roadside Attractions)

Is he maybe gay? Perhaps he’s on a deeply committed spiritual path? Maybe it’s all very honorable. He certainly seems to be saying wise, honorable things, about how everything will change if they cross that line. Admirable, laudable, commendable—not very believable—restraint.

And yet he’s also clearly an alcoholic, getting bombed on a few beers at the local (abandoned) corner store. Normally, where there’s one addiction, there are usually a couple more. So maybe he’s got a drinking induced Jekyll-Hyde thing and he’s warning her off before she meets the inner beast.

Adam Number Two

Soon, along comes Caleb (Chris Pine). He’s a former miner. He’s Caucasian, sounds local, handles a gun well (militarily well?), is quite fit for a nuclear refugee, shares her faith, and is real good-looking.

Jealousy? Nope. Apart from some minor irritated looks cast their way, John says he has no problem with Ann and Caleb. “I’m good with it—y’all can go be white people together.” How on (the last place on) earth is this supposed to be a love triangle if the one angle doesn’t care what the other two angles do?

Heaven Let Your Light Shine Down

Certain critics of the book from whence this tale came (Robert C. O’Brien, posthumously published in 1974) thought of it as a science-faith standoff. As mentioned, Ann believes in the Almighty, John doesn’t.

Just by Caleb’s showing up and joining Ann in bowed-head grace-saying before meals, the film tips toward a mildly cloying Christian emphasis, but sort of in the way that you spend 20 years listening to Collective Soul’s “Shine,” and then find out the lyrics are highly Christian: “Oh—that’s what that’s about?”

John and Caleb just basically go hunting, hang out, strike the barn (which feels like a triple-speed, reverse replication of the “Witness” barn-raising), and build the water wheel together.

It’s All About the Casting

Ejiofor is a stunning actor given the right role (“12 Years a Slave”), but the stock-in-trade wild-eyed, mouth-frothing hysterical terror that worked so well for him in “12 Years,” only functions here as irritating. John whines and frets a lot, and you want to tell him to shut up.

To jazz the triangle tension, director Craig Zobel would have needed to cast an actor who could have rivaled Pine in the dashing lover department, like a James Marsden or maybe a Hemsworth brother. Then again, that much good looks would have immediately turned the entire venture into a soap opera.

Maybe the fact that the original book character of John as a jealous, cruel, controlling man was changed, since it could have been construed as politically incorrect with the current casting. But the re-imagining just served to take the air out of the whole thing. Why not leave the book alone and cast accordingly?

Robbie is the only reason to see this film. She’s an Australian Emma Stone, with a wide range and charisma for days. She’s got comedic talent, as well as the ability to go deep; she’s going to be around a while. Wait till “Zachariah” comes out on Netflix and watch it back-to-back with “Focus.” Then you’ll be in the right place, at the right time, to appreciate her range.

With our earthly chaos looking more grim daily, ultimately people want to feel some hope when exiting an apocalypse movie. This is just the use of an apocalyptic setting in which to stage a fairly lame love triangle. Which says loud and clear that when it comes to humans, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

‘Z for Zachariah’
Director: Craig Zobel

Starring: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine
Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 28
Rated: PG-13
2.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch