Editor’s Note: Z for Zachariah opens in wide release today, August 28, 2015.
The world as we know it has indeed ended, offscreen, likely due to a combination of budget limitations, narrative demands, and filmmaker choice, in Z for Zachariah, Craig Zobel’s follow-up to the controversial, divisive Compliance. Whatever “bang” ended the world remains unstated, but a likely nuclear war erased most of the earth’s population, a reflection of Z for Zachariah’s origin, a 1974 novel written by Robert C. O’Brien (Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH), during the seemingly endless Cold War. Fears of nuclear annihilation were all too real when O’Brien wrote his novel, even if the nuclear war that we feared thankfully never came to pass. A Cold War-era science-fiction novel seems like unlikely material for cinematic exploration and adaptation, but Zobel, working from Nissar Modi’s (Breaking the Edge) screenplay, smartly, provocatively updates the material to reflect contemporary fears, anxieties, and struggles.
. . . Zobel, working from Nissar Modi’s (Breaking the Edge) screenplay, smartly, provocatively updates the material to reflect contemporary fears, anxieties, and struggles.
O’Brien’s novel explored the fraught relationship between two survivors, a man and a young woman, of a nuclear war, locked in a cold war of their own, battling over resources and contradictory, self-serving or self-interested agendas. In Zobel’s and Modi’s adaptation, the female character, Ann Burden (Margot Robbie), has been aged up from her mid-teens to her mid-twenties, while her counterpart, Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), remains approximately the same age, but with a swap from (presumed) Caucasian to African-American in the adaptation (a decision apparently inspired by The World, The Flesh, and the Devil, a similarly themed and premised post-apocalyptic film made in 1959 starring Harry Belafonte), but it’s less Loomis’ race or their respective age differences than Ann and Loomis’ worldviews and belief systems that initially causes tension and friction. While Loomis represents the man of science, the rationalist, the skeptic, and the atheist, Ann represents his polar opposite, a believer (in faith and spirituality), a Christian in thought and upbringing, and a farmer’s daughter, intelligent, but relatively unsophisticated to the vanished world outside her valley.
Like Zobel’s last film, Compliance, the characters in Z for Zachariah (named not for a character in the film, but a children’s book Ann owns) constantly get in their own way. . .
Loomis doesn’t immediately find Ann, however. Initially, he finds the lush, verdant valley, a sanctuary apparently unaffected by the nuclear devastation that has destroyed most, if not all, of the outside world. He sheds the radiation suit that makes him look like an alien (he is, in more ways than one, to Ann), but in his haste and enthusiasm, he inadvertently bathes in contaminated water, a decision that leaves him on the brink of death. Ann nurses Loomis back to health and as she does her role shifts from caretaker to companion to potential romantic interest. The combination of their different worldviews and their respective individual traumas they refuse to share throws up a major obstacle to any real relationship. The mid-film arrival of another stranger, Caleb (Chris Pine), a Southerner like Ann who claims to be a true believer, inserts another, this time external conflict both between Ann and the suddenly jealous Loomis and between Loomis and Caleb, a man he considers his romantic rival.
Caleb’s claim that he survived the nuclear fallout by hiding (living in?) in a mine seems at least superficially credible, but by intention and design, Zobel and Modi make Caleb an equivocal, ambiguous character. Caleb says exactly what he expects Ann to hear, simultaneously emphasizing their similarities while excluding Loomis, a conflict that moves inexorably, inevitably toward confrontation, violence, and possible tragedy. Like Zobel’s last film, Compliance, the characters in Z for Zachariah (named not for a character in the film, but a children’s book Ann owns) constantly get in their own way, victims of their desires (sexual, emotional), fears (loneliness, exclusion), and ultimately, their personalities (or rather the flaws, tragic or otherwise, in their personalities). The external world might change, often for the worst, but at least in Zobel’s and Modi’s conception, the internal worlds of his characters won’t and can’t.
Zobel is on much surer ground there than when he lets Ann and Loomis share their different, opposing worldviews over multiple encounters and conversations, shifting Z for Zachariah into simplistic, reductive polemics. Talking about faith and science may not be an easy subject to capture truthfully or fully on film, but it’s also not a cinematic one. When the conversation shifts away from faith and religion and to character reveals (again, mostly hints, mostly unspoken or half-spoken) and potentially rebuilding a new society Adam and Eve-style (an accurate, if albeit crude description of one of Z for Zachariah’s central themes), using Loomis’ science-gleaned know-how and problem-solving skills to bring back one of the marker’s of civilization, electricity, to Ann’s farm via a water wheel constructed from her father’s unfinished church (a perfect, if unsubtle, metaphor for religion giving way to science and the conflict therein). It’s to Zobel’s and Modi’s considerable credit, as well as Robbie’s, Ejiofor’s, and to a lesser extent (due to screen time, if nothing else), Pine’s performances, that we end up implicitly and explicitly rooting for their success or at least their survival.
The adaptation of a Cold War-era science-fiction novel for a film may seem unlikely and outdated, but director Craig Zobel, working from Nissar Modi’s screenplay, smartly and provocatively updates the material to reflect contemporary fears, anxieties and struggles.