What if? The question at the heart of any science fiction story, is about how humanity deals with an uncertain future. What if the majority of the population is killed in war or through disease? How lonely would it be? What happens to human relationships when every day is a battle against starvation, pain, and death? Do things like love, friendship, and compassion survive?
In the film, Z for Zachariah (based on the 1974 bestselling novel of the same name by Robert C. O’Brien), three people who’ve survived a nuclear disaster, grapple with these questions. The film opens in a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. Walking through an unnamed and abandoned city, a young woman in a makeshift protective suit and oxygen mask makes her way to a library where she takes some books. Back at her farmhouse, set in a beautiful valley, she scrubs herself top to toe. There is no electricity. She hunts in the nearby forest for food. Her only company is her dog.
When Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) spots a man in a Hazmat suit, pulling a wagon of belongings down a dirt road, she’s wary. She watches him as he uses a radiation detector, peels off the suit when he finds nothing, pumps out elated “whoops” and runs down to a pool of water underneath a waterfall. Ann runs after him, shouting for him to get out, as the water itself is radioactive. The man, John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), becomes violently ill, and Ann drags him back to her house where she tries to nurse him back to health as she discovers more about him. John, a scientist, survived because he was in an underground bunker when the disaster hit. He knows of no other survivors and he’d been making his way through the countryside, trying to find other humans. Desperate for companionship, Ann begs God to save John.
While John convalesces, the two, at first wary of each other, decide to form a partnership to create a better system to grow food and restore electricity. But when another survivor, the jock-like Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives, it threatens to upset the relationship Ann and John have built. Caleb is useful: he is strong and can help with some of the major projects that need to be finished before a freezing winter sets in. But, there is an underlying sense of unease that comes to characterise the triangle.
Z for Zachariah is like a Kazuo Ishiguro novel – a story with a science fiction premise, but really, a simple, stripped-down examination of human nature. The title of the film refers to the last entry in a Biblical alphabet book Ann has retained from her childhood: beginning with the first man, Adam, and finishing with Zachariah, one of the last prophets in the Old Testament, and a symbol for the trio who appear to be the last living humans. Neither they, nor the audience ever find out for sure.
Anyone expecting an I am Legend-type action-based science fiction film, might find Z for Zachariah slow, so really, it should be categorised as an indie drama. It is better compared to The Road or Never Let Me Go. In fact, this film is reminiscent of the type of story created by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (who wrote the book upon which Never Let Me Go is based), who often explores the impact of catastrophic events on individuals and how this can bring out both the best and worst in humanity. Z for Zachariah also juxtaposes religion and science. Who is better off? Ann, with her steadfast faith and trust that God will prevail, or John, the scientist, who would rather focus on practical means of survival, like breaking down the wooden chapel Ann’s father built in order to build a water wheel? Only the audience can decide.
Bar the opening scenes, the cinematography is focused on capturing the natural landscape, as beautiful as it may be deadly, and using it as a symbol for contrast against the science John believes will be their salvation, the same science that also devastated the world. The film was shot in New Zealand with director Craig Zobel and cinematographer Tim Orr drawing inspiration from the classic (and beautifully recorded) 1970 science fiction films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, like the sublime Solaris.
While this film doesn’t quite have the same emotional impact that one like Never Let Me Go has (one of the most haunting and devastatingly beautiful films I’ve ever watched), it’s engaging, particularly because Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor play their respective roles so well: Ann, who despite her artlessness and kindness inevitably becomes the “Eve”-figure, and John, a good man faced with choices that will take him to the precipice.
Director: Craig Zobel
Cast: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine
Rating: 3½ out of 5
SA release date: 08 April 2016.