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Sci-Fi Film Review: "Z For Zachariah" (Directed by Craig Zobel, Starring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine)
Ah, the sci-fi genre. It has been a longtime birthplace for heady and thoughtful commentary on the foibles of humanity as well as the big-budget stylings of operatic directors like Ridley Scott, James Cameron and Danny Boyle. More than any other, sci-fi has been the one placeholder of our times with each of its films coinciding with a particular era's technology, trend, and the evolution of society at large. Through the filter of science fiction, themes that stretch as far back as ancient Biblical times get reworked and re-imagined and although not always successful, still brings plenty to offer, to think about or to willingly suspend our disbelief. Z for Zachariah is one such film. It is solidly paced and doesn't rely on meteoric action sequences to act as sensory overload. In its place, the movie sticks to an old-fashioned tradition of quiet, almost solitary moments where key characters engage in a cat and mouse game of affections, intense glances and underlying motives that are never easily understood at the surface level. There is genuine raw and emotive power here and thanks in part to a sparse but nail-biting script and adept character work from the commanding presence of Robbie, Ejiofor and Pine, the picture can be included as an impressive entry in the highly saturated and diverse genre of science fiction and fantasy.It was adapted from Robert C. O’Brien's novel but comparisons more closely align to the Biblical story of Adam & Eve in rare and captivating ways.
At the outset, this is a tale of survival. We find that the effects of a nuclear incident, very reminiscent of Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later", has all but eviscerated at least 80% of the world's population. Our three leads represent all that possibly remains of the human race. Initially, Robbie and Ejiofor discover each other and establish a dynamic that is sustained throughout the majority of the film. She, a young and very religious farmhand has lived peacefully for years uninhibited by man but nevertheless lonely. Time has afforded her a bevy of skills that she's needed to learn to adapt to a changing and caustic environment particularly in the scientific fields. Pollutants run amok in the atmosphere from what happened years earlier and radioactivity, in most areas low levels but still deadly if exposed to over a long period of time, proves her greatest combatant. Ejiofor, himself a scientist, as she encounters him wearing a custom designed hazmat suit, has been facing the treacherous conditions alone for years after his family perished. In their destitution, they attempt to mend their respective demons and even kindle inklings of a romance as Ejiofor's John Loomis seeks to procreate with her to ensure the survival of humanity in an effort to rebuild. Robbie's Ann Burden is incredibly hesitant since Loomis doesn't share her religious convictions though he is respectful of her faith and passion. In his mind, their survival rests squarely on their conjoined efforts and instincts not their appreciation and belief in a higher power. This is a recurring theme throughout the film's duration and proves a source point of contention for both. In these critical scenes, the film is at its most robust and demanding while also being peerless in its dramatic subtext between both characters.
The film becomes even more inspired upon the introduction of Chris Pine's Caleb, a mysterious and enigmatic figure who Burden stumbles upon at about the half way point in movie's duration. Purposefully, he maintains an air of questionable motives and using his endless amount of charm and carefully orchestrated one-to-one's with Burden, he throws a wrench between her and John in a very sly way. Pine owns every scene he is in with his intense blue-eyed glare and captivating Southern drawl as he makes every effort to get Burden alone with him while systematically breaking John down from within as he gradually begins to self-destruct. Pine, ever since his landmark turn as a young Captain Kirk in the rebooted JJ Abrams helmed "Star Trek" films has really diversified his range with memorable turns in the balls-to-the-wall R-rated "Horrible Bosses 2" and the adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's fairy-tale musical "Into The Woods". He's also ventured into TV, having had one of the best supporting characters in the "Wet Hot American Summer" Netflix-produced series that just premiered and as a loose canon eccentric billionaire in "Smokin' Aces" director Paul McGuigan's "Stretch". Truly a pleasure to watch as he transcends the material confidently and breathlessly.
So, what about this movie detracts points from its overall enjoyment? Well, this is a slow moving film that doesn't subvert the dialogue with fast moving action. In its unique way, it gets most of its merits on character and its compelling performances and scenic design and sound production. If you are someone who is looking for a "Universal Soldier" or "Minority Report" kind of movie, this won't exactly rank high on your list of must-sees. But for others who demand a forward moving plot that transmits deep and thought-provoking concepts and ideas where power comes the unspoken moments, small gestures, and impactful decisions, this is definitely the one. Director Craig Zobel has such a finesse and uncanny way with actors. His talents were previously on display in his breakout feature "Compliance" and here he displays the same sensitivities and finely tuned rapport of a veteran filmmaker. He's went on record as loving working with a smaller cast of only three instead of a larger ensemble and we can clearly see why. Here's hoping his next film will channel this sense of confidence and poise and that he will be able to round up such a stellar A-list cast to shepherd his vision into glorious life.