'Z for Zachariah' puts Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine in a new world that never finds its footing

Z for Zachariah proves two is a couple and three is a crowd after the wake of a nuclear war. The young director Craig Zobel demonstrates his masterful control once again in this slow-burning Sundance drama. 

The simplicity of the story gives room for interesting thematic ideals, but many of its downfalls lie in its screenplay, which has moments of unevenness and insincerity. Nearly devoid of drama, antsy moviegoers might find this adaptation of the 1974 cult classic novel pedantic. However, for many it will be rewarding and will create a great tonal companion to another trio-led 2015 film, "Ex Machina."

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Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) believes she is the only person left alive in the world after a nuclear genocide killed everyone outside of her immediate farmland. One day, a wandering scientist and survivor, John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), comes through her farm after having been intoxicated by the radiation.

Ann nurses him to health and they share the farm work and responsibilities. John begins to fall for Ann, but her religious beliefs hold her back from pursuing a physical relationship. Before winter, they must find a way to generate electricity or they’ll face death by starvation or freezing. 

John has the capabilities to tear down the church and turn it into a water wheel, but Ann has many reservations. During the summer, a traveler looking for safety, Caleb (Chris Pine), meets Ann and John. The two ponder what to do with the weary traveler and how to continue their lives.

There is a certain insincerity in casting Robbie as a young farm girl and, presumably, the last woman alive. I couldn’t help but notice how gorgeous the whole cast was and it really took me out of the otherwise compelling atmosphere. 

The film balances the morose tone with the natural beauty of the New Zealand backdrops it was shot in. Cinematographer Tim Orr does a great job of bringing to life the beautiful, lush nature surrounding the estate and the sets inside the house are subtle and attractive. 

Thematically, “Z” battles many of today’s social stigmas and how they affect our interactions. Religion is the biggest quarry that “Z” tackles as Ann’s Christian faith is tested throughout. It brings into question how one can have faith when all hope is lost, but on a deeper level it questions how religion affects relationships. 

The church that Ann’s father built represents the center of her faith and, to some degree, her sexuality. As the survivors question what to do with it, Ann faces inner turmoil with her morality. This connection is obvious to make, which affects how strong the message is and, unfortunately, makes for a slight film. 

Race is another thematic issue that comes into play, although the movie never makes much commentary on interracial versus same-race relationships.

Zcompletely relies on the acting strength of Robbie, Ejiofor and Pine, especially since it is devoid of any other characters. All three rise to the challenge and have great chemistry together. 

Pine's character is the most extroverted and transparent, so his job is significantly easier than the other two who have more internal struggles. Despite that, he puts on a consistent performance. Ejiofor’s John is a more complex character who struggles with jealousy and drives the tension and paranoia felt throughout the movie. 

He comes off as a genuine and nice person, but there is something unpredictable about him. His interactions and competition with Caleb is quite sexual, as if his masculinity is in question. Overall, Ejiofor creates dimensions in John that drive the entire story. 

However, Robbie is clearly the star and adds a new identity to her repertoire. She breaks away from the “sex kitten” archetype that has been passed onto her after previous stints in "Wolf of Wall Street" and the upcoming "Suicide Squad." 

Her character Ann is selfless, sweet and innocuous, but her internal dilemmas affect her interactions with the men. She juggles her loneliness and her faith, but in a post-apocalyptic world some accommodations have to be made. A lot of what Ann deals with is internal. She finds herself consciously sinning, but her disposition doesn’t change. It takes a lot of restraint to avoid melodrama as Ann evolves, but Robbie proves herself a competent agent of subtlety.

The film's weakest elements are its timeline and screenplay. The pacing may prove tiresome for viewers, but its restrained tempo is done quite masterfully. Instead, some elements just don’t add up. 

Certain conversations seem to happen in the wrong place or at the wrong time. Instead of reveling in plot twists or intriguing conversation, I wondered what caused the revelations and developments. 

These mistakes make for a messy second act and detract from the admittedly well-executed character development and pace of the film. Additionally, there is an element of insincerity and unevenness as many of the lines fall flat.

Overall, "Z for Zachariah" is a competently directed and acted film. Its positives certainly outweigh its negatives, but those are far too large to ignore. Its scope is relatively small and the themes it explores are interesting, but they are shown through a shallow and superficial lens. Instead, "Z" contemplates a post-apocalyptic world in a new way, but it never amounts to its fullest potential.

Reach the reporter at tanner.stechnij@asu.edu or follow @tannerstechnij on Twitter.

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