Sundance 2015: ‘Z for Zachariah’ is B for Boring

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Z for Zachariah
Written by Nissar Modi
Directed by Craig Zobel
USA, 2015

Pop music warns us that you can’t hurry love.  Apparently, you can’t hurry the apocalypse, either.  The new sci-fi flick, Z for Zachariah, has all the hallmarks of a Young Adult schmaltz-fest, but too much depressing reality to appeal to its target audience.  Genre miscalculations aside, this movie fails because of the lethargic pacing and a lack of romantic tension between its three impossibly-handsome leads.  The apocalypse has never been so boring.

Ann (Margot Robbie) is the last woman on earth.  Luckily, she’s beautiful, resourceful, and has an adorable doggie that disappears whenever you don’t want it around.  Of course, none of these qualities had anything to do with her survival.  She lives in a nondescript house nestled in the mountains that has been spared from the extinction-level radiation that befell the entire planet.  The proposed explanations for this phenomenon represent the entirety of Zachariah’s thematic backbone; spirituality and reason must work together in order to sustain humanity.

Ann’s solitary existence is shattered when she stumbles upon Dr. Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) frolicking in a nearby waterfall.  Though Loomis is purported to be a brilliant scientist, he somehow doesn’t foresee the possibility that his waterfall might be irradiated.  That moronic oversight lands him back at Ann’s picturesque country home with a bad case of conveniently-invisible radiation sickness.  After Loomis and Ann embark upon a completely listless “love” affair, Caleb (Chris Pine) appears on the scene so the movie can last longer.  Unlike the scientifically-driven Loomis, Caleb shares Ann’s fancy for all things spiritual, giving them more to discuss during their post-apocalyptic downtime.

Of course, none of us can (or want) to speculate about post-apocalyptic behavior, but these characters move at the languid pace of an LSD picnic.  Director Craig Zobel floods the screen with luscious landscapes and beautiful actors.  He’s also got a meaty premise, as provided by Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 novel of the same name.  Instead of sinking his teeth into the material, however, Zobel attacks his story like a turtle with dentures.  His characters sit around talking, trying to convince us that they need a reason to have sex besides the propagation of our species.  Honestly, if you’re the last three people on earth, feel free to skip the foreplay.

Simply put, these characters behave like they have all the time in the world.  In fact, Dr. Loomis says as much after he inexplicably rebuffs Ann’s sexual advances.  It may be okay for the pony boys from Twilight to play footsie for centuries, but apocalypse survivors should settle for a spirited game of rock-paper-scissors.  Trying to shoehorn this urgent scenario into a cloying YA format simply doesn’t make sense.  Writer Nissar Modi does his best to develop the characters, as he painstakingly details where they came from, what they want, and the ghosts that haunt them.  None of his efforts make a difference, though, because desperation is the antidote for romance.  Just ask anyone still left at the bar at closing time.

Zobel gets serviceable performances from his actors, even if we’ve seen these character dynamics a million times before.  Robie probably envisioned this to be her Winter’s Bone; the stripped-down, unglamorous role that proved Jennifer Lawrence could act.  She holds her own, certainly, but the jury is still out on her acting chops.  Pine and Ejiofor fare somewhat better, particularly when they’re allowed to spar with each other (in heavily padded gloves, of course).  The few times when Zachariah comes closest to generating actual dramatic tension, it’s because of the interplay between Pine and Ejiofor.

Z for Zachariah tries to straddle the line between realistic drama and pandering cheese, only to fail miserably at both.  That lack of commitment and urgency permeates every aspect of the film.  There are some interesting ideas in play, but they’re nothing more than decoration for a lame love triangle that never generates any heat.  It’s a terrifying scenario reduced to the level of a glorified soap opera.  If the last man on earth hears a knock on his door, it shouldn’t be someone trying to sell him a magazine subscription.

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