MOVIE REVIEW: Z for Zachariah



This website and many others have ridden the proverbial merry-go-round that houses "The Book versus The Movie" debate.  Feathers get endlessly ruffled on that topic and this writer has frequently made it known that such a debate isn't even a contest.  The book will always be better, end of story.  Books are a different artistic medium with far for room for detail and depth than a two-hour movie that requires condensing and artistic license.  It doesn't matter if it's Jane Austen or Dr. Seuss.  The concluding stamp is that the book is always better and you should never judge a book by its movie.  All you can hope for is that a movie can maintain the tone and essence of what started on the written page.  Nothing will ever be exact.  On a smaller and less popular scale than "The Cat in the Hat" or "Pride and Prejudice," that very conclusion couldn't ring more true than for the film adaptation of "Z for Zachariah."

Playing concurrently in limited theatrical release and on Video On Demand outlets after debuting at January's Sundance Film Festival, "Z for Zachariah" is based on Robert C. O'Brien's 1974 novel of the same name.  Director Craig Zobel, who earned under-the-radar acclaim with the docudrama "Compliance" in 2012, helms this insulated and isolating film with a small cast of only three players: Margot Robbie of "The Wolf of Wall Street," "12 Years a Slave" Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, and "Star Trak" captain Chris Pine.   "Z for Zachariah" was O'Brien's second try at mature work for older readers after his successful children's novel "Ms. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH."  Written in the form of a diary during the paranoid peak of the 1970's, the post-apocalyptic novel reverberated with tension and clashes of survival.  Even with a trio of talented actors that turn heads, you would never know such crackle existed from the resulting film that falls flat at every turn.

Up and coming "it girl" Margot Robbie stars as Ann Burden, a young God-fearing twenty-something living on her own in an unnamed Appalachian valley.  We meet her exploring a nearby town that has been decimated by nuclear fallout from an unseen prior war or event.  Her rural ancestral family homestead, which includes a house, full farm, a trusty dog, an old gas station, and a church her father built, seem to exist in a "meteorological enclave" that is unaffected by the radiation.  Ann figures she's the last woman alive until she encounters and follows a man roaming in a high-tech radiation suit.  When the man removes the suit to bathe in a waterfall-fed spring that he doesn't know is contaminated, Ann reveals herself and comes to his aide before he succumbs to the ensuing sickness.  

The man Ann takes in and nurses back to health is John Loomis (Ejiofor), a highly educated former chemist from an underground lab in upstate New York.  As he becomes more healthy, Loomis and Ann begin to live and work her farm together and plan for the upcoming winter survival.  The naive Ann is enamored to have company and begins to wonder if John is the only man she'll ever meet for romantic purposes, a level and line that the always-suspicious Loomis is not comfortable crossing.  Realizing that electricity would be a big help, Loomis creates a plan to use that nearby contaminated waterfall as a hydroelectric generator to power appliances to stock food.  The two learn that they need each other for survival.

Many months after Loomis arrives, another wayward traveler enters the valley.  He is Caleb (Pine), a younger and more redneck person of interest who claims to have survived living in a mine.  The unbalanced trio that has now been created throws off the routine of the farm.  After being rebuffed by Loomis romantically, Ann begins to favor Caleb while Loomis fears Caleb's true origins and intentions.  He keeps Caleb close and uses his extra pair of hands to work on the generator project.  The question becomes how long can this triangle work and who blinks first to the pressure to be or do more.   

Normally, I don't do this, but I invite you to hop on over to Wikipedia and read the plot summary of O'Brien's novel.  Go on. Break protocol.  Yes, that act counts as spoiling, but trust me that what you read will only be a minor fraction of what makes it on screen.  I say go ahead because what you'll read there sounds like a terrific landscape for a movie.  Let me pick our a few example lines.  First, check out this one:

"When she asks if he was ever married, he grabs her hand suddenly, jerking her toward him so she almost falls. He demands to know why she asked, and when she asks him to let go, he refuses to do so until she answers, finally pulling her until she falls. Flailing for balance, she inadvertently hits his face. He rebukes her for this, leaves and does not speak of it again.  Ann feels this is controlling, and decides his criticisms and orders were also controlling. Disturbed by his behavior, Ann begins to thinks of Loomis as a murderer and fears his horrible experiences have damaged his mind."

Now that's some dark tension, eh?  Want to see Robbie and Ejiofor have that escalation?  Me too.  In the film, you get a whimper of that piece and little more.  Here's one more stellar moment.

"Loomis then uses her dog, Faro, to track her to the cave, where he burns her belongings, though Ann escapes. Ann's leg wound becomes infected. She hides in a hollow tree and has feverish dreams of another valley where children wait for her to teach them. Ann comes to believe the dreams are true and Loomis is insane, so she plans to steal the safe-suit and find her dream valley.  Moreover, she decides to kill Faro to prevent Loomis from tracking her in the meantime, making her feel equally a murderer."

Oh wow!  That sounds even better, right?  Yeah, it does.  Well, that doesn't happen either.  

So, what does happen?  That's the problem with "Z for Zachariah" as a film.  Not enough happens and the movie stops at the 2/3 point of the book.  Reading that novel summary, there is tremendous dramatic brevity to be had and proven talent on-screen that can deliver it.  The simplicity is there for a taut three-character game in a setting that doesn't require a broken bank of special effects or stunts of any kind.  There is room to explore the mental side with a slow boil led by Ejiofor's greatness for intensity.  The potential is there for a character-driven piece of thought-provoking suspense.  

Though greatly watered down, there is interest and intrigue that saves "Z for Zachariah" for casual viewing.  The New Zealand countryside doubling for West Virginia is easy on the eyes through the lens of cinematographer Tim Orr (the upcoming "Our Brand is Crisis" and "Pineapple Express").  As the requisite object of affection, Margot Robbie does fare better than someone like Mila Kunis in "Book of Eli"  at playing the impossibly beautiful woman trying to be unkempt and backwoods with an accent and sans makeup.  She's too much, but she could have been worse.  Chris Pine comes in late to add what appeal he can, but he too is unsuccessful trying to play un-pretty.  The real treat is, to no surprise, Chiwetel Ejiofor.  He is fully invested in a handcuffed version of John Loomis and sells every scene and moment he holds.

However, too much potential sits untapped by Zobel and his screenwriter Nissar Modi, whose only previous credit is the straight-to-DVD supernatural flick "Breaking at the Edge" from two years ago).  The film comes across like a porch rocker (set to a meandering, light score from Heather McIntosh) served with a virgin Arnold Palmer and not a stiff cocktail of mental games or cat-and-mouse posturing for dominance and survival.  Worse yet, if you read that summary, you won't see the third Caleb character played by Chris Pine.  That movie creation, among other choices, include an open-ended ending, feel out of place and underdeveloped.  "Z for Zachariah" goes down as a missed opportunity.

LESSON #1: RESOURCEFULNESS WITHIN LIMITATIONS-- Ann demonstrates the work ethic and homely resourcefulness it would take survive in such an isolated setting.  She is careful, thoughtful, and still takes pride in her work, despite having no one to impress except the God she believes is watching over her.  She is reasonably disciplined to think her choices through.

LESSON #2: ACCEPTING NEW COMPANIONS AFTER ISOLATION-- Loomis and, later, Caleb represent the first people Ann has seen since her family left her alone on the homestead.  Thanks to her pious disposition, she is willing and giving to accept new people and companions after spending so much time alone.  I think everyone isolated under those circumstances would throw caution to the wind and relish in the prospect of human contact if it presented itself.  Her work ethic and resourcefulness only adds to Ann's acceptance of others.

LESSON #3: THE BOUNDARIES OF A LOVE TRIANGLE-- In that kind of isolation, a little measure of human instinct takes over for attraction.  Hey, a girl has needs and guys can be even worse, especially when the girl looks like Margot Robbie.  In "Z for Zachariah," two very different roosters are in the hen house and that kind of unintended competition is going to have ramifications.  Love triangles have boundaries.  Someone is going to get a better majority, while another comes up short.  Asking to stay platonic is probably too difficult in this scenario.