Review: Z for Zachariah Is a Post-Apocalyptic Garden of Eden, with a Twist

Saturday, 29 August 2015 - 12:15PM
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Saturday, 29 August 2015 - 12:15PM
Review: Z for Zachariah Is a Post-Apocalyptic Garden of Eden, with a Twist
The first half of Z for Zachariah is a triumph, a nearly flawless post-apocalyptic fable that takes on a mythic, even Biblical significance. Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor give stunningly nuanced performances as the last two people in a nuclear war-ravaged world, and manage to render the relationship between the characters both archetypal and complex. But then, Chris Pine arrives to form a love triangle, and although his performance is just as accomplished, his character's presence quickly causes the film to devolve into something far more conventional and far less interesting.

In Z for Zachariah, Robbie plays a young, pious woman named Ann, who lives on a farm that has been miraculously untouched by the pervasive nuclear destruction. She believes that she is the only person left, until she comes across Ejiofor's John, a scientist who nearly dies of radiation poisoning. They become a modern-day Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, navigating a potential romantic relationship as they contemplate restarting civilization in a quite literal paradise. 

The primary theme of the film is faith versus reason, but rather than simplistically pitting the two against each other, the movie negotiates their relation to each other through two well-realized characters. Ann is religious, and believes that both the apocalypse and her farm's survival are part of God's plan, while John is insistent that there must be a scientific explanation. But Ann consistently reveals herself to be practical and shrewd, never ignoring the reality of the situation, and John admits that he threw rationality out the window and left his safe underground lab because there was no sunshine, no human connection, "what he wanted from life wasn't there." 

Both characters are searching for something more, they simply take different avenues to get there, and they both learn the interplay between faith and science. Just as John learns that life isn't worth living without ascribing to something larger than himself, whatever that may be, Ann learns that science can be a means for hope and optimism in this life. She and John resolve to essentially fuse their two philosophies and use science to "rebuild," so they can have a future in which they're not just living day to day.

It's a credit to the script that for the first half of the film, almost nothing happens, but it never gets dull. And yet, the filmmakers still felt the need to insert a villain into the mix. It was fascinating to watch John and Ann's fraught attempts to connect to each other. Robbie does a great job at conveying Ann's desire to find someone to love, even as John shows signs of being controlling, while Ejiofor is pitch perfect at portraying John's simultaneous attraction to Ann and fear of her; just as science threatens to violate Paradise, he's terrified of making a mistake with a woman who is so sweet and seemingly innocent. Stereotypical gender roles aside, the dynamic between them was consistently compelling. But with the addition of Chris Pine's Caleb, the film became much closer to a typical love triangle, albeit a well-acted one.

The addition of another character could have worked if he had been as developed as the other two, but Caleb is completely two-dimensional. He's immediately positioned as the interloper, so even when he reveals personality traits that should make him sympathetic to the viewer, we just see him as the snake in the garden. John is not always a likable character, but since he feels like a three-dimensional human being, it's never a contest as to where the viewer's sympathies lie. 

Many critics had a problem with the ending, claiming that Z for Zachariah had fallen prey to many third-act blunders in subtle indies that felt the need to shoehorn in a big dramatic showdown, like Ex Machina or It Follows. For me, the ending wasn't the problem, as it was relatively restrained, it was the entire love triangle plotline. With the disastrous culmination, there may have been an opportunity to make a larger statement about humanity, that even when we get the chance to start over, we can't help but repeat the same mistakes over and over again. But if the film was trying to convey that theme, it got lost somewhere around the time that the two men started getting out the rulers.
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