There was a time that dystopian cinema was a rarity, when done, it was done incredibly well with wonderful world building and characters unique to any other genre. Now, in 2015, we have countless numbers of dystopian films, all custom built to fit the needs of any and every teenage girl in the entertainment market. While some do in fact reach out to older, many times more sophisticated audiences (“The Hunger Games”), many others failed to hit the mark of success, even within their demographic (“The Host”). So tell me, why do we need another one? We have enough already, yet, here we are with “Z for Zachariah,” as we will have again in January with “The Fifth Wave.” Yet, of those two new films, “Z for Zachariah” does something different, it could be considered bold in this day and age in the state of dystopian cinema, it appeals to adults. Yes, with its seasoned cast, indie director and decidedly bleak feel about it, there wasn’t much of a chance that this book adaption would ever hit the highs of “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent,” but maybe it shouldn’t have to.
Because “Z for Zachariah” is like the old school films mentioned earlier, done incredibly well with world building and character development.
Even though the book was published in 1974, the basic plot of this film has been seen before, even if differently. Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) lives alone in the Midwest, left deserted after a nuclear disaster wiped out most of civilization. Thinking she’s the only one left, Ann comes across John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sick on the side of the road one fateful day. Taking him in, Burden begins to bond and grow close with the elusive Loomis, building her dilapidated farmhouse and working back into comfortable fruition. Another day, Burden comes across a strange and equally elusive man in the woods named Caleb (Chris Pine), and takes him in as well, despite hesitation from Loomis. This sparks a tense love triangle between the three that is only agitated by their isolation.
Robbie, rising exponentially to the top of the pack of young actresses working today, channels wonderfully loving notes in Burden, making her one of the most likable protagonists in a film of this nature in a long time. Her flaws in character are made up for in her kind and deeply loving actions towards these two strangers, despite their intentions. Robbie does this all with her comforting demeanor and familiarly soothing speaking style in the film that comes across so gracefully poignant. Ejiofor channels impending chaos in his character of Loomis, making the audience wary of whether Burden should trust him, regardless of intentions. Ejiofor starts his presence with a bang and slowly builds it back up from the bottom as he becomes wary of Caleb’s presence. Pine also strikes a chord, channeling temptation as Caleb, leaving behind the typical “bad boy” persona seen in mainstream cinema for something even more tempting, understanding. Despite his mystery, Caleb understands Burden’s devout Christian faith and her disposition of the world she lives in, against Loomis’s agnostic hesitance.
Shot in New Zealand in place of the American Midwest, “Z for Zachariah” has a unique look about it that comes through in its complete ordinary settings. Director Craig Zobel, despite an awareness for its interesting setting, places far more emphasis on the three characters in the film, while also building the small world in which the film takes place in with subtle keenness. The focus on Ann’s burgeoning sexuality after he extended solitude is a well-executed plot point that never once uses Robbie’s looks to exploit this important aspect of human isolation.
The emphasis on faith in the film was also of value as well, as myself being non-religious, I found the usage of faith in the film to be effective, never once preaching itself to the audience, but rather emphatic traits that rounded out the characters, making them more relatable and likable in their belief systems. Seeing as most of our country identifies as religious, it’s nice to see a film handle the topic in such a way that is effective and in no way alienating to anyone of any faith, it simply exists as is.
From what I’ve heard, “Z for Zachariah” is in no way an accurate representation of Robert C. O’Brien’s novel, yet, I don’t seem to mind that fact, as the film we have in front of us is one of the more effective uses of the dystopian genre of films we’ve seen in recent memory, never once gimmicking the audience into feeling for the characters through a forced romance, but rather building the character’s sympathetic qualities before ever introducing the realistically awkward and tense love stories involved. This is the type of film in need of multiple viewings, as each viewing could never be the same as the last with every element in play. Beautifully shot with wonderful performances from the entire seasoned cast, and what we have is a film deserving of a much larger release than what it has now. If we need another reason to like Robbie, Ejiofor or Pine, you have it and so much more once you look beyond the at first seemingly tired surface.
Directed by: Craig Zobel
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine.
Runtime: 98 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, partial nudity and brief strong language.
In select theaters and on-demand
Lionsgate, Grindstone Entertainment Group and Silver Reel present, in association with Lucky Hat Entertainment, Lotus Entertainment and Night Fox Entertainment, a Zik Zak Filmworks, Sighvatsson Films and Material production, “Z for Zachariah”