Categorized by some as both a science-fiction film and a thriller flick, “Z For Zachariah” (2015) is neither. Although the setup involves the aftermath of a worldwide nuclear holocaust, there is only a touch of the dystopian brand of science fiction (which Seth Godin would not class as good science fiction, according to his recent interview with Tim Ferriss on the latter’s podcast) to which moviegoers have grown inured. There are not many of the thriller aspects of such a story, either.
There is a good bit of science, provided by government engineer John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who happens upon the fortuitous refuge of a mountain-top farmhouse where teenager Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) has been eking out an existence. Their awkwardly and slowly blossoming romance is interrupted by Caleb (Chris Pine), a young coal miner from a neighboring town. While Ann’s location above the catastrophe allowed her to survive, both John and Caleb survived because they were deep underground at the time of the nuclear war, which is not explained in any greater detail.
That’s because this film is really a romantic drama, based on the classic love-triangle trope. It is a screen adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s Z For Zachariah (1976), a science-fiction novel, but significantly alters the original story. I have not read the book, but learned through IMDb that there is no third party (i.e., no Caleb) in it.
Filmed in New Zealand but set in the Midwestern United States, “Z For Zachariah” has nice visuals. The Sundance-selected film does well in its first half, but things go downhill from there. When Caleb appears, the expected fireworks do not. Over-subtlety in the interactions among the three characters compounds the frustration of the rather slow pace. Obvious undertones of racial conflict and a theme of religion versus science both go largely unexplored. Finally, the ending lacks both emotional and narrative payoff.
Based on the Sundance buzz that I read online, I had expected a much more powerfully emotional film. “Z For Zachariah” does not deliver on that promise (as shown in the trailer below). That’s a shame and quite a waste of three talented actors — especially Ejiofor. Rather than lay the blame at their feet, I’ll wager that they did exactly as they were directed by helmer Craig Zobel, who appears to have been too cautious and/or overly minimalistic in his approach. A larger issue here is the value of a Sundance appearance, which I’ll table for the time being — unless and until I sense a trend.