The Horror Honeys: ‘A’ is for Apocalypse...

‘A’ is for Apocalypse...

A Sci-Fi Honey New Release Review by Katie

Z for Zachariah (2015)

It’s an all-too-familiar visual trope of post-apocalyptic cinema: an anonymous figure clad in a hazmat suit staggers through an irradiated landscape, foraging for survival supplies in the detritus of a nuclear wasteland. Is this our hero? If so, what (or who) will be their antagonist? In perhaps the boldest move for what is ostensibly an understated film, Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah spends an entire feature-length runtime refusing to answer those questions with resolute certainty. Instead, the audience is compelled to interpret the morals and motives of the film’s three solitary characters with only the limited information they’re willing to provide. This results in a moviegoing experience that’s sure to be thought-provoking for some, but incredibly frustrating for others. Those who can’t tolerate a “slow-burn” drama, look away now… but for those of you who want to check out something that wanders off the usual apocalyptic path, keep reading.

When the hazmat-suited figure sheds their protective gear, it’s a shock to see Ann Burden (Margot Robbie), a slight, fresh-faced teenage girl, clad in dungarees and a trucker hat, slinging a rifle and whistling after her trusty spaniel. Ann lives in a farmhouse that looks like it sprung to life from a Norman Rockwell painting, tucked inside a pastoral green valley flanked by rolling hills and a waterfall, with plenty of fertile land to raise vegetables and livestock. You might think she has it made – except that Ann is probably the last woman on Earth, since everyone else was wiped out by a nuclear catastrophe and the ensuing toxic fallout. Sheltered by the insular nature of the valley, Ann managed to survive the mass destruction and carry on without the assistance of her family or any of the modern conveniences we take for granted. Her scavenging routine is disrupted when she encounters another inexplicable survivor, John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who could just as easily be a threat to her existence as much as he could be a friend. Ann operates on gut instinct alone when she chooses to nurse him back to health from radiation poisoning, and a tenuous relationship predicated on end-of-the-world survival ensues.

 It’s like Little House on the Prairie, but with more lethal radiation.
Let me make this very clear: this is NOT a horror movie. Z for Zachariah is a relationship drama with an apocalyptic backdrop, in the same way that Crimson Peak is a Gothic romance with ghosts. Both films use a central dramatic relationship to anchor a story that is built around extraordinary supernatural or science fiction circumstances. That isn’t to say that Z for Zachariah doesn’t feature some elements of horror – Ann recounts the winter that she almost starved and froze to death, and John confesses to mercy killing a young boy in the throes of radiation sickness. The two build trust in each other through their shared misery, but there are missteps along the way; virtuous Ann clings to her steadfast faith in God to carry on, while nonbeliever John occasionally loses himself to alcohol and a swift temper. Things are further complicated by the unexpected arrival of a third survivor, Caleb (Chris Pine), who may or may not be the humble and right-minded individual he presents himself as.

These are the last two men on Earth? Dayyyummm! 
What makes Z for Zachariah engaging throughout, even with a relatively threadbare plot and languid pacing, are the skillfully restrained performances by the film’s trio of stars. Margot Robbie (who I swear channels a young Gabrielle Anwar) conveys a wealth of expression from her eyes alone, and her portrayal of Ann is believably heartfelt. Ejiofor is an actor I like more and more with everything I see him in, and it’s getting to the point where I could probably be captivated by watching him read a phone book. Pretty boy Pine, too, expertly toes the line between charm and menace, keeping us guessing one moment to the next what his ulterior motives may be. Zobel’s adept direction frames our characters in all kinds of precarious situations, from pointing rifles at one another to teetering on the edge of cliffs, with nothing more than a furtive glance and a cutaway to leave us to decipher the truth. This tactic is sure to infuriate some viewers who want the film to have a clearly defined moral center – but with so many other films spoonfeeding a message down their audience’s throat, I find a little ambiguity to be refreshing.

Who knew a nuclear apocalypse could be so cozy and inviting?
Based on a 1970s YA novel of the same name by Robert C. O’Brien, Zobel’s film adaptation is definitely not for every sci-fi aficionado. Z for Zachariah stands out in the modern cinematic landscape because it’s a character-driven look at persevering in a cataclysmic future, focusing more on interpersonal drama than outside conflict. Z is not for ‘Zombie’ – there isn’t an army of the undead, roving packs of thieves, or shady government types trying to hunt down our survivors. Instead, the three must contend with hunger, unpredictable weather, dwindling resources, and their own emotional turmoil to carry on. In some ways, this reality is far more frightening than anything an out-of-this-world sci-fi scenario can convey. What would YOU do to survive… and do you really know the person you’re surviving it with?

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Four quaint little apocalypse farmhouses out of five.

Z for Zachariah is available via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube VOD, Vudu
Google Play, & blu-ray/DVD

Have you seen this post-apocalyptic drama?
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