Friday, August 21, 2015

Review: "Z for Zachariah"

Director: Craig Zobel
Runtime: 95 minutes

The last thing anyone needs after surviving the apocalypse is to get stuck in a love triangle. Who has time for all of that drama when basic sustenance is a daily question mark? The answer, frustratingly, comes down to the last three people on earth. Two men. One woman. One isolated slice of untouched American Eden. That takes care of the who, but not the why. Director Craig Zobel, working with Nissar Modi to adapt Robert C. O'Brien's novel, answer the first question with flying colors. But when it comes time to dredge up the old love triangle and really make us care, they fall short, thereby stranding a trio of talented actors in a romantic drama that barely elicits more than a hollow, "so what?"

Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) spends her days tending to her family farm, which survived the unexplained death of mankind, and getting supplies from the nearby town in the valley below. Yet while Ann can roam about her family's territory in peace, descending from the ancestral perch requires putting on a makeshift hazmat suit and gas mask. Ann seems content in her isolation, until she encounters John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a government researcher sealed inside an experimental radiation-proof suit. The initial awkwardness (which here means "guns drawn, voices elevated") passes, and the pair begin to try and build a life together based on trust. 

In his opening act, Zobel demonstrates a solid command of the story, the characters, and the overall atmosphere at hand. Gorgeous landscape shots lend an otherworldly aura to Burden Valley, simultaneously emphasizing the location's innocence and its borders with vast expanses of rotten land. There's also a nice visual homage to Tarkovsky's Stalker, though the scene in Zobel's film ultimately comes across as padding. 

And speaking of looks, Robbie and Ejiofor don't look so bad themselves, despite just barely limping past humanity's expiration date. The first half hour contains hardly a trace of love or lust, and instead puts its energy toward exploring the fundamental differences of Ann and John's mindsets. Ann is still a devout Christian, determined to be as kind and humble as possible, while John has a rather blunt, mathematically driven point of view. He offers to build a water wheel to help generate power for Ann's home, but has to watch his step once he proposes using the wood from the Burden chapel as material. 

Though not without its minor hiccups, Z for Zachariah starts off promisingly, using its post-apocalyptic setting to tell a story about loss and loneliness, rather than just another zombie-filled splatter fest. But then the first awkward arrives and plants the seed of potential romance. The dialogue, not the film's strong suit to begin with, dips in quality. The actors are not tasked with saying anything overwrought, but the words gradually become clumsily arranged. Modi's screenplay has a habit of putting certain developments so close together that there's no time for them to acquire genuine meaning. When certain interactions occur, it feels as if we're watching a painfully condensed version of what was supposed to be a much longer scene. 

The arrival of Chris Pine's Caleb does little to help the film, other than adding another attractive face. Ann struggles to adapt to having another guest, and Z for Zachariah fumbles even more in acclimating to a third character. To his credit, Pine makes you wish that Caleb was a more prominent part of the story, investing the role with both mystery and aw-shucks folksiness. 

But with the narrative already struggling to find the right balance for the Ann-John dynamic, Caleb's arrival only further upsets the story's foundation. Both sides of the "courtship" that takes place are halfhearted. This wouldn't be a huge issue considering the post-apocalyptic backdrop, but the urgency of the situation never materializes. Ann could choose John, Caleb, or both. But her decision doesn't really carry much weight. Big decisions are certainly made in the film's final act, but the cumulative impact of these choices is as empty as the land beyond Ann's farm. Envy the dead of Z for Zachariah, for at least they never had to experience such aimless frustration.

Grade: C

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