Skip to main content

My dad told us that we can’t leave the valley. As long as we stay here we’d be protected.

Z for Zachariah
(2015)

(SPOILERS) This adaptation of the posthumously published Robert C O’Brien novel (he was also author of the classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH) has likely had devotees up in arms, since it veers significantly from the source material (there’s always a 1984 BBC Play for Today for those adherents to fidelity). Rather than a tale of a man and a young woman – a scientist and a person of faith, and the underlying ructions that causes –  Z for Zachariah becomes a post-apocalypse-a-trois, as a potential Eden is rudely disturbed by an interloper.


Of course, the Eden was only really an Eden when Ann (Margot Robbie) was there alone in it, making her the Adam of the story. Okay, she was experiencing hardships (she barely survived the previous winter), but her radiation-free idyll, safe from sickness and disease, was tranquil and unsullied. 


It’s only when man arrives, in the form of John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist lacking her belief system and keen to reintroduce the articles of modern civilisation (mostly in the form of restoring power, which over-symbolically entails the dismantling of Ann’s beloved church) that the fall from grace begins. We see Loomis as a man burdened by his experiences “out there”, prone to aggression and withdrawal, part and parcel of an underlying sensitivity, and his capacity for suspicion and paranoia is only accentuated when Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives, the snake in the garden, professing to have taken shelter in a mine when the event occurred (Loomis was in an underground research facility, where he had been developing a protective suit).


While Caleb professes to Ann’s viewpoint (“us believers”), it’s evident he’s disposed towards using it as a lever to highlight the differences between Ann and Loomis. As such, while there’s an element of the novel’s faith vs science, it becomes more about the machinations that occur when men vie for a woman, and their essential untrustworthiness in that regard.


Director Craig Zobel (who helmed the standout International Assassin for Season Two of The Leftovers) and screenwriter Nissar Modi emphasise the dubiousness of Loomis and Caleb throughout, in contrast to guileless, open Ann. In the novel, Loomis turns full psycho, but here he’s a more restrained, troubled figure; early on, we see him looking through a gunsight at Ann. This has a perfectly reasonable explanation, but it functions as a signpost for the unsettling undercurrents throughout; most alarming is a scene where he becomes drunk and aggressive towards her. But it’s the alpha behaviour once Caleb arrives, be it the latter training a gun on Loomis ever so briefly, or Loomis’ alternating keenness to have shot of him with recognition of his value, that establishes there is to be no happy ending, or even a lasting mutual truce.


Most resonant is a dinner scene, testifying to the corruption both have brought with them, in which they recount experiences in the outside world. Loomis details his encounter with a 13-year old boy, whom he later admits he killed and is fairly sure was Ann’s brother, while Caleb details a fight in the mine during which he looked the victor levelly in the eyes as he was about to turn on him, and the former backed down.


These tales inform the most controversial aspect of the picture, the undefined fate of Caleb. Speculation on whether Loomis pushed him into the radioactive lake or he did indeed leave, as Loomis said, is unlikely to be resolved (purely because the makers clearly intended such doubt to remain), but it’s evident that Loomis is capable of murder, and it’s also evident that Caleb was in a situation of giving his potential killer that look.


There are certainly logical questions about how Loomis would retrieve and dispose of Caleb’s body (not to mention it potentially damaging the wheel as it fell), but the final scene suggests an arid, mutual acceptance of the lies and distance between Ann and Loomis, now alone once more; she with her organ, her remnant from the chapel, and he having got his power running. And that’s not mentioning the suggestive shot of Loomis, high on the cliff edge, contemplating whatever he may have done.


Against that is the possibility that Caleb could see the futility of their power struggle (despite having won Ann’s affections and bedded her) and voluntarily departed, but would Loomis really allow him the suit (he’ll have to stash it, if not)? Loomis tells Caleb he was never a threat, but his defensive words are really indicating what a very real threat he is (likewise his rebuke of Ann; “You all be white people together”). And Loomis’ calculated responses (he sees Caleb’s value purely in terms of his physical contribution to the farm) suggest his profession of love for Ann is not so much about true, deep feelings as a need for possession and claim. Loomis may have won, but there’s no joy to be found in paradise.


The leads deliver fine performances, gauged as much on nuance and implication as words. The film is very much a slow-burn, and so may not be to some tastes. As such, it’s rather different to the explicitly survivalist turn and more acutely downbeat ending of the novel. Zobel commented that the softening was intentional; “The book is very black and white about certain things… But I felt it would be more fun to leave it more gray”. Mostly, Zobel achieves what he’s setting out for. It might be suggested that Ann’s innocence is a drawback in terms of this pursuit of depth, since she becomes the hallowed character squabbled over by untrustworthy men, but Z for Zachariah generally rewards patience with its layered and insightful character study.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…