Here we are again after the end of the world. Some unknown calamity has befallen the earth an unknown time before our story begins. There are few survivors. The world they left behind is contaminated, perhaps irreparably. All that remains is a haunted landscape of abandoned places. We’ve been here before, the post-apocalyptic narrative being one of our most common lately. Maybe we’re preparing ourselves for the worst. Maybe we think we’re already living in the early stages of our own apocalypse and need doomsday prepping. Or maybe we’re captives of a pessimism that’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (See Tomorrowland for the corrective there, I suppose.) Director Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah takes this familiar premise into tiny intimate spaces, finding the subgenre simply a convenient excuse to strip away society and all but a few characters, the better to focus on the slightest and narrowest of interpersonal conflicts.
Zobel’s films are about marginalized characters. Think of his low-level con men in Great World of Sound and fast food workers in Compliance. But you don’t get much more marginal than Margot Robbie in Zachariah who, as the movie begins, may as well be the last person on earth, for all she knows. We see her head into town in a HAZMAT suit, scavenge some essentials, then trudge back to her isolated farmhouse where, miraculously, the radiation levels remain at hospitable levels. This has been her life for who knows how long. She credits her survival on her faith in God, praying and playing the organ in a chapel built on her property. We learn she had a family who left to find other survivors and never returned. It’s just her, a dog, a rifle, and God. Zobel treats her daily existence with a deliberate pace and a bright digital glaze.
Soon enough, another person enters her solitary life. He (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in almost every way her exact opposite. She’s a young white southern Christian farm girl. He’s a middle-aged black northern big city scientist. He left his relative safety on a quest of curiosity, to find the state of the world since the crisis that decimated it. His trip through contaminated spaces has left him half-dead. They’re surprised to see each other, and form a tentative alliance. She lets him stay on her property, nurses him back to health, and accepts his help with survivalist tasks. Together they forage, farm, and plan ways to improve their lives. They maybe even fall in love a little bit, but it’s also clear they’re not sure how much the affection they feel is more a factor of the slow ebbing of overwhelming loneliness.
This is all well and good, an intimate if schematic character study nestled in picturesque uninhabited lush green natural spaces. Taking inspiration from Robert C. O’Brien’s cult classic sci-fi novel of the same name, the story plays out by running softly along the natural fault lines in the characters’ relationships, letting interactions of tabula rasa impressions drift backwards. Into this dynamic arrives a third character, a man (Chris Pine) who stumbles onto the farm desperate for water and shelter. He, too, has gone looking for survivors. He, too, is accepted into their isolated commune. But now that there are three, petty jealousies encroach. What was a restrained two-hander becomes a spare and wan love triangle, so softly and delicately played it may as well be a slight chill on the breeze. It makes for a much less interesting second half, as overfamiliar as it is uninvolving.
Zobel’s commitment to a slow and steady pace keeps the plot’s thematic interests slowly boiling, despite the obvious directions it’s headed. It’s admirably restrained, feeling no need to adhere to what an audience might expect from post-apocalyptic stories. The problem is just that it’s ultimately all so slight and inert. A finely acted drama, it lacks narrative tension or character insight deeper than first glance assumptions, playing out like a didactic Twilight Zone knockoff with the broad strokes in which characterization is painted never becoming a satisfying larger picture. It’s the sort of film that’s just barely compelling enough in the moment, setting up its variables with reasonable control, but concludes with the distinct feeling of neglecting to add up. Where it ends is hardly worth the trouble getting there. We’ve not only been here before, but it’s been far more satisfying, too.