Z for Zacharaiah is an ambitious movie. It stars Margot Robbie, Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor. And nobody else. They’re – for all they know – the only people still alive in a rather mediocre movie.
The world as we know it is gone. The apocalypse has come and gone. What’s left? For all Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) knows, she is what’s left. And nothing else. Through a quirk in geography, the nuclear fallout has not made it into her little valley. On the farm she lived with her parents who are now long deceased, she farms. There’s chicken and vegetables. All in all, Ann’s life is lonely, but she survives fairly well.
She is, however, lonely.
So one day, a man in a radiation proof suit shows up. His name is Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and he’s a scientist. He developed the suit that would protect him against the nuclear fallout and he’s been walking for months, maybe years.
At first, Ann decides to not approach him, but then takes pity on him when he sees him bathe in a radioactive stream. He gets sick, but recovers. While Ann keeps the farmstead up, Loomis uses his skills as an engineer to build a hydroelectric power plant and helps Ann get the tractor back in running order.
Three People Are Better Than Two?
This is the point where the movie adaptation, after a script by Nissar Modi diverges from the book by Robert C. O’Brien (the pen name of Robert Leslie Conley). The movie adds a third character – Caleb played by Chris Pine. And that’s also where the movie falls apart.
The book relies on the interaction between two characters who are vastly different. In the book, Ann is, while amazingly crafty and a hard worker, still naïve as she grew up on her own after her parents’ death. On the other hand, Loomis is a driven scientist and quickly shows controlling ambitions and seeks domination over the valley. While Ann thinks of repopulating the planet by being the mother of a new generation, Loomis actually tries to enact that plan. All in all, Ann and Loomis are just not compatible. Ultimately, this leads to disaster.
Now, in the movie, Caleb shows up and the entire latter part of the movie is thrown out in favour of a generic love triangle plot, complete with remarks about race, religion and skin colour coming out of left field and going nowhere. The dynamic the book builds that sees the two presumably last people on the planet is completely destroyed by the introduction of Caleb and it’s painfully obvious that he just doesn’t fit.
True to the Plot
With the exception of Caleb, the movie sticks to the plot of the book fairly closely. It works in the book because the build of the hydroelectric generator as well as the reactivation of the tractor serve as vignettes illustrating the character traits of both Loomis and Ann Burden.
In the movie, however, it seems like the plot has no significance to anything. It doesn’t matter if they build a generator or kill a chicken to eat. In the end, it’s a conflict between two men who want to get with Ann and the woman of the story losing most of her agency.
While the Iceland based production company Zik Zak Filmworks completely misunderstood the story Z for Zachariah wants to tell, they did one thing right. The cast is strong. Very strong. Movies with a small cast are difficult to handle and a lot rests on the shoulders of the actors and their performances. Chris Pine, Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor manage to carry the story while not stealing the spotlight from one another. Their acting is immersive and gripping, down to the accents and inflections.
Regardless, Z for Zachariah is a pretty okay movie with an extraordinarily small and strong cast that would have had the chance to be so much more, but declines to do that in favour of relying on things that have been proven to work in countless other movies before.
Z for Zachariah screened yesterday at the ZFF, Zurich Film Festival. And from last I saw, the screening was sold out.