Friday, September 11, 2015
Z FOR ZACHARIAH Posits That Guys Will Be Guys ... Even After The Apocalypse
Z FOR ZACHARIAH Review:
- The first thing that's noteworthy about Z FOR ZACHARIAH is its loaded cast, with a trio of current and soon-to-be megastars front and center. Chiwetel Ejiofor. Chris Pine. Margot Robbie. Three of the most buzzed-about actors in the biz today. In theory, Z should be a perfect showcase for their talents. It's a small-scale story with a big premise: after a nuclear apocalypse renders much of the world inhospitable, three survivors converge on a miraculously still-green, still habitable valley on which an innocent farmer's daughter tends to her father's farm. The movie has its moments, and Robbie in particular shines. But very quickly, the film becomes a dramatic version of Last Man on Earth (the Will Forte sitcom), that essentially boils down to two dudes getting jealous of each other and fighting over who gets to be more-than-just-friends with Margot Robbie. What starts off as an intriguing post-apocalyptic thriller devolves into eye-rolling Harlequin Romance.
Director Craig Zobel does a great job of sucking you in to the movie's irradiated, post-disaster setting. As we are first introduced to Robbie's character - religious, affable, virginal Ann - and as we see her first encounter with the wandering, traumatized John (Ejiofor), I found myself eager to see where this was all going. And for a while, Z FOR ZACHARIAH plays out as a compelling story of two equally smart and capable survivors working together to get by and figure out how to live in this new reality. I liked the way that Chiwetel Ejiofor plays John at first - he's a good man, though scarred and sick, and there's real drama in his internal struggle as to whether to be a father figure or a lover/partner to the younger Ann.
But the subtle conflict and complex relationship between John and Ann is abruptly shaken up when Chris Pine's Caleb enters the picture. Almost immediately, it's clear that Caleb has his eyes set on Ann. Just as quickly, the movie becomes about the rivalry between Caleb and John. The speed with which the movie becomes a bro-vs.-bro battle is almost comical. And the way that this plotline ends up reducing Robbie's Ann to a mere prize to be won is frustrating. Because of course, despite all the build up and complex emotions that lead to Ann thinking about John as more than just a mentor figure, she is ready for a roll in the hay with Caleb pretty much from the get-go.
Perhaps there is a way to tell this story in a more effective, more powerful way. But as it stands, a film that starts out with a lot on its mind but that quickly becomes one-note. It goes from tension-packed to heavy-handed.
Robbie is definitely the stand-out here though - especially in those early scenes with Ejiofor. I hadn't seen her play this kind of role before - quieter, more subdued. Is she 100% believable as a virginal farmer's daughter? Not completely. But she acts the hell out of the role, to the point where I actually didn't realize it was Robbie at first. There's also an interesting dynamic of Ann as a person of faith vs. John as a non-believer. Again, Robbie sells it, but also gives Ann a number of layers so that she isn't just one-note. It's too bad then that the second half of the movie undoes a lot of what makes the character work so well earlier in the film. Ejiofor follows a similar arc - some great stuff, some real intensity in the early part of the movie. But that same intensity seems silly and cartoonish later on. As for Pine, he fares the worst of the bunch. It's partly just that Caleb is basically a walking plot device designed to inject tension into the film. But there's no subtlety to it - and the reveals that we might expect to come with Caleb never really do. He's a pretty one-dimensional character.
There are some really interesting ideas in Z FOR ZACHARIAH, and some real standout moments for Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor. But ultimately I thought the film did not live up to the potential of its premise. In Last Man on Earth, the whole joke is that Will Forte's Phil Miller is mostly motivated by a strong desire to get laid - even though, given the state of the world, it might do him some good to have other priorities. This movie elicits some eye-rolls by being so seemingly unaware that it's a dead-serious movie with the same comedic premise. Too bad - as the early part of the film makes clear - this could have been about much more.
My Grade: C+