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'Z For Zachariah' Spoils Its Apocalyptic Premise With Predictable Drama

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Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Margot Robbie are the last three people on earth in 'Z For Zachariah' (Courtesy of Roadside Attractions)
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Three's a crowd in Z For Zachariah, Craig Zobel's post-apocalyptic followup to the much-lauded Compliance. Things are simpler after the world ends, with plentiful real estate and few distractions, but the nights are liable to get lonely when you're the last woman on earth. Ann (Margot Robbie) and her loyal pup eke out a modest existence on her family's rural estate, carefully trekking into town for supplies when necessary. She's curiously upbeat about her plight, a quiet strength that no doubt has much to do with the cross she wears around her neck.It's with cautious optimism that she greets the arrival of a newcomer, Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a civil engineer sick with radiation poisoning who calms down considerably after being nursed back to health. Things go well for a while, until the film's plot doesn't allow them to.

While the film's hook is decidedly apocalyptic, the substance is that of a relationship movie. Trying circumstances bring people together and drive them apart—not necessarily in that order, and not necessarily for good. Z For Zachariah takes place in an unspecified area after an unspecified event, which is to say that it could take place anywhere and at anytime. There's little action in Zobel's adaptation of Robert C. O'Brien's novel—less, even, than in similar fare like The Road or Children Of Men. There are also fewer ideas being grappled with in a compelling way, with too much emphasis on predictable chamber drama.

Compliance was mightily overpraised, but Zobel's skill for slightly altering dynamics in close quarters was not. He's highly attuned to the slightest shift in loyalties, as evidenced by everything that occurs after the arrival of yet another stranger, Caleb (Chris Pine), onto the kinda-sorta couple's humble, as-yet-unspoiled Eden. He's one of those contrived, only-in-the-movies manipulators who picks up on every conceivable source of tension between people and uses it toward his own ends, all 'yes ma'ams' and 'thank you kindlys' until he detects an opportunity to advance whatever his agenda happens to be.

Zobel's coy about the extent to which this is deliberate subterfuge rather than a natural progression—Caleb does appear to have much more in common with Ann than Loomis does, after all. They're from the same area and, perhaps more importantly, they're also both believers. It's the man of science vs. the man and woman of faith, a conflict that becomes quite literal when the only way to restore electricity involves stripping a church built by Ann's father in order to use the wood. Ever the opportunist, Caleb manages to drive a wedge between his new benefactors without doing much to help either.

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To be a survivor means to have lost, and all three characters are stand-ins for everyone they've ever known or cared about. They carry a torch for their dead, even if they don't talk about them very often. When they do, it's always in the past tense. Their lives have been divided into before and after—so much so that everything prior to the unnamed event may as well have been a past life. But Z For Zachariah's present is never as engaging as its unseen past, and after a while it becomes difficult to care about its future.

Z For Zachariah opens this Friday and will play at the Arclight Hollywood.