Save for a pesky snake problem, the Garden of Eden had a lot going for it, including lush greenery, a farm-to-table diet and a perfect male-female ratio. The post-apocalyptic Eden at the center of Craig Zobel’s “Z for Zachariah” offers many of the same amenities, only here there are two Adams vying for the attention of one Eve, with predictably fraught consequences. It’s a scenario with obvious appeal for Zobel, whose love-it-or-hate-it 2012 “Compliance” subjected a gaggle of characters to a psychological crucible modeled on Stanley Milgram’s controversial obedience experiments. This time, the stakes are even higher — the repopulation of the planet — but the dramatic tension considerably less, in a movie that feels stranded somewhere between serious artistic ambition and the dystopian franchise-building of “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” et al.
Like those movies, “Z For Zachariah” also sports a literary pedigree: a posthumously published 1974 novel by Newbery-winning YA author Robert C. O’Brien (“Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH”), about the aftermath of a nuclear war as seen through the eyes (and diary pages) of one 16-year-old survivor. A sheltered farm girl from a fictional mountain valley somewhere in the southern U.S., Ann Burden believes herself to be the last human being on the face of the Earth, until she comes face to face with John Loomis, a research scientist who was developing a radiation-proof “safe suit” at the time the war broke out. (He escaped wearing the one completed prototype.)
O’Brien’s book wasn’t exactly cinematic — it consisted of many long scenes devoted to planting and harvesting crops — but it contained an intriguing idea about how even a two-person society might deteriorate into paranoia and a kind of martial law. By the end, it even turned into a “First Blood”-like pursuit thriller, with Ann on the run from a raging, murderous John after having rebuffed his sexual advances.
In bringing “Z for Zachariah” to the bigscreen (it was previously filmed for the BBC’s “Play for Today” series in 1984), Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi use the novel less as a blueprint than as a springboard for a mostly original story of love and jealousy at the dawn of a new civilization. Most significantly, they’ve created one entirely new character in the person of Caleb (Chris Pine), a former mine worker and fellow survivor who ambles into the valley 40 minutes into the movie and quickly becomes John’s chief rival for Ann’s affections — affections that Ann (“The Wolf of Wall Street’s” Margot Robbie), who’s been aged up out of the statutory-rape range, is now fully at liberty to dispense. And by casting Chiwetel Ejiofor as John, the filmmakers have changed the race of the character from white to black (what ever will Rush Limbaugh say?), an inspired decision that carries echoes of Duane Jones in George Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead.”
Of course, race shouldn’t matter much in a post-apocalyptic society, nor religion for that matter, but both subjects raise their heads more than once during “Z for Zachariah,” as Zobel and Modi plausibly imagine how, having survived the end of the world, people might go about reorganizing their lives. Beyond its allusions to the Genesis narrative, the novel was seen by some critics as a metaphorical clash between science and faith, with the God-fearing Ann pitted against the atheistic John, and though the film ultimately takes a different tack, it maintains O’Brien’s Christian undertones and even amplifies them into unmistakable overtones. Both Ann and Caleb credit their faith with their salvation, and initially oppose John’s plan to tear down the local church in order to use the wood for a hydroelectric water wheel (a scene which, when it does play out, is like the barn-raising from “Witness,” except in reverse).
“Z for Zachariah” is a handsome-looking film (shot in widescreen, on remote New Zealand locations, by veteran David Gordon Green d.p. Tim Orr) and it doesn’t lack for provocative ideas, though it never digs quite deep enough into any of them. It also goes some way toward enriching the novel’s simplistic characterizations. As played by the splendid Ejiofor — the only cast member who projects a vibrant inner life — John remains a strict logician, but no longer a conniving villain and sexual predator (indeed, this time it’s he who rebuffs Ann’s sexual advances), while Ann herself comes across as less of a virginal naif. Even Caleb, the ostensible disruptor here, is more sincere than serpentine, a jocular blue-collar worker who seems remarkably fit and well fed given the circumstances.
But despite all of that, the film remains strangely inert, and the romantic triangle at the story’s center never gives off any real passion or heat (pre-Sundance rumors to the contrary). If John and Caleb are intended as twin pillars of science and spirituality, in the end they seem like two basically decent people who realize that there is no solution to this equation that involves both of them (a mixed-race polygamous marriage being, apparently, off the table), building to an incredibly contrived climax straight out of an old Saturday morning serial. Who ends up with whom in the end? It scarcely seems to matter.
One of the best and least known of all apocalypse movies, Lynne Littman’s 1983 “Testament,” took us through the impact of a nuclear holocaust on an average suburban American family — no solarizing flashes or mushroom clouds on the horizon, just fragile human bodies struggling to survive as the radiation seeped in. “Z for Zachariah” seems to be aiming for a similar effect, but it never achieves the same effortless, lived-in feel. You keep waiting for someone to pull back the curtain and reveal that the characters are all subjects inside a highly controlled experiment, like the period townsfolk of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.” But the curtain stays drawn, and whatever deeper meaning Zobel hopes to impart remains just out of reach.