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.

Popular posts from this blog

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was