Z FOR ZACHARIAH was my most anticipated film at Sundance! I loved the book as a kid, and it stars one of my biggest crushes, Chris Pine, and one of my favorite actresses, Margot Robbie! However due to its fantastic early buzz, and the fact that Lionsgate already picked it up, the film has been the biggest nightmare to get into at Sundance. The amount of time and brain power I dedicated to securing a ticket to this movie is probably scary. I waited in line for the Press and Industry (P&I) screening; I didn’t get in. I tried to get a number for the waitlist; again, the universe was against me. Millions of pestering emails to patient publicists also didn’t secure me a ticket. My last shot was showing up at a screening and seeing if the super kind publicist had any leftover tickets from confirmed journalists who didn’t want to get up at 8 am. God bless early mornings.
Thankfully my Z FOR ZACHARIAH ticket saga was well worth the effort. It was my favorite movie at Sundance and I am already excited to see it again whenever it comes out in theaters! While you may roll your eyes over the “post-apocalyptic” keyword in its premise, this movie is not another dystopian YA story (not that there is anything wrong with those movies; I love them). In fact, the apocalyptic elements take a serious backseat to a more important character study about human nature and self-interest.
Based on the 1974 novel by Robert C. O’Brien, the story picks up after a nuclear disaster has decimated the United States. Nuclear radiation has basically made the entire country uninhabitable. However, a small area in the mountains seems to have escaped the fallout. Ann (Margot Robbie) lives on a farm in this safe-zone by herself, with only her dog and her faith for company. Ann believes she is the last woman on Earth, until one day, while hunting, she sees a man in a bio-hazard suit.
Dr. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is shocked that his radiation detection equipment is picking up zero radiation in this area of land. After Loomis becomes too comfortable in his new, clean environment and accidentally exposes himself to a radiation-poisoned water source, Ann is forced to reveal herself and nurse him back to health. Their relationship starts to slowly build into more, until a stranger named Caleb (Chris Pine) comes into the picture and shakes up the group’s dynamics. He has a lot more in common with Ann, and Loomis starts to fear she will choose to be with Caleb instead of him.
This love triangle creates an obvious conflict in the film. However, there is another issue hiding under the surface: Christianity vs. atheism. Ann is a pious woman. In fact, her father built a church on the farm’s property and preached there every Sunday. She believes she has been blessed with survival because it was what God intended. Dr. Loomis, on the other hand, is a scientist and believes in facts, not faith. He looks at the situation and thinks the land caught a lucky break. It was shielded from radiation by a natural barrier of mountains and perhaps the weather pattern. A not-so-subtle symbol for this conflict in ideology is Ann’s reluctance to tear down the church so Loomis can build a water wheel to generate electricity. As time passes, the main question is not only Loomis vs. Caleb, it is church vs. electricity.
Z FOR ZACHARIAH takes a lot of welcomed liberties from the book. For example, the film adds a completely new character, Caleb, who played a vital role in the film. Also, as director Craig Zobel (COMPLIANCE) said in the Q&A following the film, since this book was written in the 70s, there were many issues with gender politics that he decided to take out for the film and rightly so. It’s not often that you can say a movie is better than the book, but in the case of Z FOR ZACHARIAH that is definitely the case.
With only three characters in the entire film, Z FOR ZACHARIAH relies on top-notch acting to make the film engaging and believable. Margot Robbie is one of my favorite young actresses working today. Since I first saw her in PAN AM and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, I have been impressed by Robbie’s incredible range. I’m so happy that her career is really starting to shoot through the roof, with upcoming roles as Jane in TARZAN and Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD. Her first lead performance in this film is a showcase of her talent, which I am sure will lead to even more exciting roles. Robbie perfectly conveys Ann’s sheltered, innocent upbringing and her tough, yet emotional personality. She is also fantastic with accents, hiding her Australian accent behind her Southern drawl for this film. The entire movie rests on Robbie’s shoulders, and like her previous performances have demonstrated, that is a safe place to be.
While this is Robbie’s movie, Pine and Ejiofor are also great in the film. Each plays the other man’s foil, and at times I wasn’t sure who I wanted Ann to be with more. There are many layers to Ejiofor’s character and performance and it takes a fantastic actor like him to make such a complex character seem effortless. Pine, on the other hand, breaks from type and instead of playing a cocky, self-assured guy is a good ole Southern boy who has to gain the trust of Loomis, Ann and also the audience.
It will be interesting to see how Lionsgate (who brought us THE HUNGER GAMES franchise and DIVERGENT) chooses to market Z FOR ZACHARIAH. It is a lot more of an adult movie than Lionsgate’s other dystopian films, choosing to focus less on action and more on character. The apocalyptic environment only serves as the backdrop of the movie; the real story lies within the dynamics between the three characters. While this film will probably not have the huge audience numbers of THE HUNGER GAMES, it is a fantastic look at survival and human nature. I absolutely loved this film and am happy my ticket saga was worth the effort.
My Review: A