Entertainment » Movies

Z for Zachariah

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Aug 28, 2015
Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in 'Z for Zachariah'
Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in 'Z for Zachariah'  (Source:Roadside Attractions)

Blink and you'll miss it: The children's book about Biblical figures titled "A for Adam, Z for Zachariah." The book makes a brief appearance as an engineer named John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) thumbs his way through a shelf in the house where Ann (Margot Robbie) lives by herself following a nuclear war. It's a subtle and effectual use of the book, and the Biblical reference resonates in a movie that slyly plays faith against fact-driven, grim pragmatism and contemplates the too-possible prospect of human extinction rather than traditional stories about our origins.

John is sort of a guest, and sort of a life companion, for Ann, a farm girl who is so young she's only now sexually coming into her own. Her family are all gone, having ventured beyond the miraculously sheltered valley where Ann lives in order to look for survivors, and never returned. It's only through sheer luck that John has found his way to the valley, and safety -- only to foolishly bathe under a waterfall full of radioactive water. Ann's ministrations help restore John to health. Needless to say, the two draw closer as a result.

For a while it seems as though Ann and John might be the only characters in the film. That would square with the film's source material, a 1974 novel, published posthumously, by Robert C. O'Brien. Critics have looked at that novel as an inversion of the Garden of Eden myth, but screenwriter Nissan Modi and director Craig Zobel have other things in mind. The book dwelt in a psychological pall, with the relationship between the two characters growing toxic with doubt and domination; here, paranoia is replaced by jealousy and, one might argue if one had a sociobiological bent, genetic selfishness.

To make this new version of the story work, Modi and Zobel need a third character, and so Modi invents one from whole cloth. His name is Caleb (Chris Pine), and he's a miner who has made his way across several counties of rural American South looking for a town called Anson, which is rumored to have survived. Once he stumbles into this warped take on Eden, Caleb becomes the serpent -- but he's not bringing temptation to Ann's putative Eve. He's bringing choice. In a way, that's even worse: It drives John nuts to think that Ann might, of her own free will, choose Caleb over him.

There's no telling how things will turn out, and the filmmakers keep you guessing. John needs Caleb to help construct a water-wheel to create electricity so that the trio can run a freezer, stock food, and get through the winter without starving; but at the same time, he wants Ann to himself, without a rival on the scene to potentially win her over. Pine plays Caleb the way he's written -- a little murkily, with his motivations never crystal clear. Is Caleb trustworthy? Are the stories he tells of how he survived real, or are they fictions meant to make brutal truths more palatable? And what about John's violent journey -- is it safely behind him now?

The film benefits greatly from its New Zealand locations, and from the deep-lying tensions the script proposes and the cast bring to life. The source material has been adapted once before, in 1984, for television and by the BBC. The 2015 take bears the thumbprints of our zombie-apocalypse-obsessed age; stylistically, there's more than a whisper of likeness between "Z for Zachariah" and "The Walking Dead." But where the top-rated AMC television drama is fueled by gore, "Zachariah" runs on the same push and pull that has propelled apocalyptic terrors throughout the ages: Will we manage to work together for a common good? Or will we succumb to blind, self-defeating instincts that threaten to short-circuit our lofty plans and moral codes and bring everything to ruin?

There's no need for mobs of extras in rot makeup here, and no call for endless scenes of extravagant slaughter. The mayhem is completely notional -- and emotional. This is the sort of fiction that makes you look at real life through a slightly different filter: One that shows the beast lurking just under civility's placid surface.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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