It’s the end of the world. (Nuclear Armageddon did the trick.) No zombies — just three people left alive. Z for Zachariah, adapted quite freely and lyrically by director Craig Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi from a 1974 sci-fi thriller by children’s-book writer Robert C. O’Brien, is hunting something deeper than dystopian melodrama. It asks what form humanity takes when there’s (practically) no one looking.
There is God, of course. Ann (a radiant, riveting Margot Robbie) is a farm girl whose home in a valley has been spared the worst. Ann is a believer and a survivor. With her dog Faro by her side, she roams the deserted valley, with its self-contained weather system, raising farm animals and raiding a local store for what’s left of canned goods. (The landscape is beautifully captured by Tim Orr, who shot in New Zealand.) Ann’s reading list includes farm manuals, Billy Graham and religious books for children, starting with A Is for Adam. It looks like they’ll never be a Z for Zachariah or any person in between.
That is until Ann sees a man by the side of the road. He’s covered, like an astronaut on a moonwalk, in protective gear. The safe suit is a remnant of what he helped create in a research lab. His name is Loomis (the extraordinary Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black man (he’s white in the novel) who puts his faith in science not divinity. But he and Ann form a tentative bond after she helps heal him after a nearly deadly bath in a radiated stream. Can these two repopulate the world? Not so fast. Sex is on the table, but Loomis doesn’t want to rush it. A better question is can the man’s controlling power games — and perhaps his murderous past — get past Ann’s defenses?
Loomis wants to use the wood from a church, erected by Ann’s father, to build a windmill powered by hydroelectricity that can sustain them. She objects. And this is where the film introduces a character not in the novel. He’s Caleb, a God-fearing mine worker of Capt. Kirk-like handsomeness since he’s played by Star Trek‘s Chris Pine. Suddenly questions of race enter the fray, along with the pain of loneliness and spiritual longing. “You can all be white people together,” says a fed-up Loomis, who seethes with aggression against this new man. What fate befalls this Eve and two Adams?
The three actors work wonders. And Zobel, as he did in 2012’s mindbending Compliance, nails every nuance of intonation and posture. No spoilers here about the eventual outcome which raises provocative questions about reinventing the planet in microcosm. As Bogie famously said in Casablanca, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” They sure as hell do in this one.