For a change of pace, “Z for Zachariah” is a post-apocalyptic drama that’s not about a zombie infestation or teenagers killing each other (though it does have a romantic triangle, don’t worry). Based very loosely on Robert C. O’Brien’s novel and directed by Craig Zobel (“Compliance”), it’s a curious Garden of Eden, religion-and-science parable, one that’s understated and memorable.
The setting is somewhere in the American South, where a simple preacher’s daughter named Ann (Margot Robbie) is the only human being for miles around. Most of America (the world?) has been irradiated by nuclear fallout, but something about the geography of this lush valley has kept its air breathable and its water drinkable. Ann has a hazmat suit that lets her go into the deserted, radioactive town nearby, to pillage what’s left of supplies; she has a dog to keep her company at home; and she plays the organ in the cottage-sized church her daddy used to preach in. But in truth, she’s barely surviving.
Into the valley comes another survivor, a scientist named John (Chiwetel Ejiofor). When he recovers from radiation sickness, he shows Ann (who prayed for his health) how they could restore electricity to the house with a generator powered by a waterwheel that he could build in a nearby stream. But the most logical source of wood to build the wheel is Ann’s daddy’s church, which she is reluctant to dismantle. John doesn’t want to press the issue.
The two get to know each other over the course of some days, working amicably to plant food and make other improvements. They share intimate personal moments, like a lovely scene of dancing to a wind-up record player. Zobel directs this and similar scenes with quiet grace — this is not a flashy movie, by any means, though that doesn’t stop it from being compelling.
Soon another survivor shows up, handsome young Caleb (Chris Pine). He’s a Southern boy, with a religious upbringing like Ann’s, and he’s closer to her age than John is. (Ann, who’s appropriately chaste for a preacher’s daughter, seems to be in her late teens. But as John tells Caleb, “She seems older than she is.”) There are a few light moments where John shows romantic jealousy as Ann warms to the new guy, and while the levity is welcome, these moments are too formulaic and mundane for a story that otherwise feels like a fable.
But we’re soon back on course, and these archetypical characters become more and more complex. Though it’s hard to miss the metaphor when the science-minded newcomer in Ann’s life literally wants to tear down her church, Zobel avoids hitting us over the head with any messages. Instead, he delivers a taut, unpredictable story, leaving us to work out for ourselves which characters we relate to, which of their actions we sympathize with, and what the “right” way to live under these circumstances would be.
B+ (1 hr., 38 min.; )