The most brilliant science-fiction often results from the most basic premise. You don’t need intricate, exhaustive scenarios that takes pages of exposition to explain (don’t tell Nolan!). Most of the true sci-fi classics Hollywood has produced over the years stem from something simple. Blade Runner was rudimentary on the surface, more or less about a broken cop hunting robots. Gravity, a film that almost won Best Picture, couldn’t have had a logline longer than “woman gets stuck in space”. Metropolis, widely regarded as the most important sci-fi film ever made, is just Romeo & Juliet disguised as a sci-fi epic, right? These three films all work not because of the actual plot, but because of larger ideas stemming from the plot, and the technical skill that went into expressing those ideas. Great sci-fi makes you think, but not think about what’s actually happening in the film.
It’d be premature and blatantly incorrect to group Z for Zachariah, the new film from Craig Zobel, with the three classics mentioned above. But much like the novel it’s based off of, Zobel’s film comes from the school of thought that sometimes less can, in fact, be more. Its premise is easy to summarize- after a nuclear apocalypse, a woman (Margot Robbie) believes she is the last person on earth living in a non-contaminated valley. She then stumbles across a man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in an anti-radiation suit, who then lives with her and forms a platonic but obviously coquettish relationship. Tensions arises when the two discover another living man (Chris Pine) whom quickly develops a romantic relationship with Robbie’s character. That’s the plot of the film without giving anything away.
Despite this premise, Z for Zachariah is far from the typical love-triangle story you’d see on Network TV. It deals with themes such as carnal desires, race, isolation, and faith vs. reason…all while never drifting away from its relationship drama blueprint. The film moves quite slowly, doing so while coming it at just over 90 minutes despite having only three characters. This makes it a very strange film in terms of pacing and character development. We don’t so much get to know the characters as we get to know what the characters think of each other. With this starkness comes genius, as motivations rather than personalities come to the forefront, bringing with them moments that will force any viewer to reflect on their own philosophies.
A low-budget sci-fi film without visual effects and vast set pieces needs great acting. It should come as no surprise that Robbie, Ejiofor, and Pine all turn in great work here. Robbie is the films obvious star. Her decisions drive the story and she functions as the lens through which the viewer experiences this post-apocalyptic world. Robbie is much more naked, figuratively, here than she was in The Wolf of Wall Street or Focus. Her role doesn’t require much sex appeal because her status as the last of her gender on the planet brings it about naturally. She wears flannels and baggy pants and no makeup, yet the other characters in the film, and the viewers, are wholly acquiescent too her every whim. She’s unsure of how to handle this. After all, she did believe she was the last person alive. Watching Robbie do some layered dramatic acting is a treat. She nails the accent. Physically, she does a fine job showing her characters nervousness with every movement. And when it comes to the “love triangle” stuff, it’s Robbie that keeps it grounded.
Ejiofor and Pine are both great as well, though their characters are more representations of Robbie’s options than fully-fledged humans. You’ll spend much of the film rooting for Ejiofor. His wide-eyed stares of both desperation and elation are more telling than anything he actually says. Pine plays the guy who comes in halfway through and unintentionally messes everything up. While he’ll always have Star Trek, Pine has quietly built himself an impressive filmography as a character actor (I’d point to Stretch as the clearest example). It refreshing to see two high-profile actors like Ejiofor and Pine willingly take a backseat to the female lead in provocative little indie. If their A-list aspirations ever fall short, they’ll always be welcome in “Sundance” circle.
Zobel and his cinematographer Tim Orr, a frequent collaborator of David Gordon Green, have publicly expressed their aim to make the look of the film an homage to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, a champion of Russian art house cinema. Tarkovsky just so happens to have made Solaris, a classic of the sci-fi genre that, much like Z for Zachariah, has ambitions that stretch far beyond the realm of its story and source novel. The widescreen approach with which they tackle the film dramatizes the loneliness of these characters in this world. It’s not a film that makes use of innovative techniques and flashy shots to create an aesthetically pleasing feel, but Zobel and Orr still do an admirable job of transforming New Zealand into the world the novel imagined.
Much like the photography, the music compliments rather than distracts. Cellist/bassist Heather McIntosh handles the score, and her strings are synced perfectly with the dialogue and films sound design. Z for Zachariah is a technically sound film rather than a technically spectacular one. And that’s sort of the whole point, since we’re supposed to spend our time inside the characters heads rather than being wowed by the craft of it all.
There’s not much more I can say about Z for Zachariah without spoiling key details, and I wouldn’t want to anyways, because I believe this is a film people should see. It’s essential viewing for sci-fi fans, and more general moviegoers will surely respond to the turns given by Robbie, Ejiofor, and Pine. The films pacing and lack of concrete explanation will polarize some, but as I’ve written here before, specifically in regards to Foxcatcher and There Will Be Blood, sometimes the best aspect a film is what it doesn’t do. Z for Zachariah won’t win any awards or reel in countless receipts, but along with Ex Machina from earlier this year, it’s showing that the independent sci-fi thinkpiece is coming back. It’s destined to live on as a cult classic. That’s fine. Many films become cult classics because the masses aren’t ready to appreciate them immediately upon their release.