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Chris Pine, left, as Caleb, Margot Robbie as Ann Burden, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, right, as Loomis, who stumble into each other’s lives years after the apocalypse has wiped out the rest of the world’s population.

AP / Roadside Attractions / Lionsgate

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Nissar Modi, Robert C. O’Brien (novel)
Directed by
Craig Zobel
Starring
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine, Margot Robbie
Country
USA
Language
English

Who would you love at the end of the world? Ann (Margot Robbie) finds herself asking this when two men (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine) stumble into her life years after the apocalypse has wiped out the rest of the world's population in Z for Zachariah.

Directed by Craig Zobel, the film positions Ann's tucked-away farm in a protected valley as a literal paradise on earth, unblemished by the radioactivity that has rid the globe of all other life. The drama brims with religious allusion and questions of how faith manifests in a world without hope.

With a quiet nuance and grace, Z for Zachariah holds up science as one possible path to rebuilding, but without discounting the role of belief. And with mesmerizing cinematography that captures the feeling of paradise regained, and enchanting performances from its only three cast members, the film avoids pitting reason against faith. Instead, this postapocalyptic parable offers a muddier and far more satisfying picture of their entanglement.

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Loomis (Ejiofor), a research scientist who was underground when the apocalypse came, is the first to arrive on Ann's doorstep. The film's first act is about Loomis and Ann falling into step with one another, and their slow seduction comically exaggerates the differences between them. Ann is a white farmer's daughter, simple-minded and virginal with a cross hanging from her neck, while Loomis is a strapping black man of science and letters.

Their clumsy attempts at courtship – one gets messily drunk, then the other – make it seem as though the end of the world was meant solely to occasion their unlikely coupling. The greatest difference between Ann and Loomis is their warring structures of belief.

When the God-fearing Caleb (Pine), a blue-eyed miner, arrives on the scene, his shared faith with Ann disrupts the fragile idyll she and Loomis have created. Both Ann and Caleb believe that God has a plan, of which the apocalypse is one small part, but Loomis understands the world's collapse in more rational terms. Unsurprisingly, tensions mount as Loomis watches Ann and Caleb watch each other, and it is easy to forget that all three have bigger problems – of life, death and toxicity – to contend with.

Adam was the first human; this film is about the last three. At one point, Loomis fingers through an illustrated Bible he finds in Ann's library called A is For Adam. Z for Zachariah takes us to the last letter of the alphabet to ask, "What happens at the end of the world?"

Like its namesake prophet, Zobel's film is about exile and return, but it's also more simply about who we lust after. This simplicity is the film's virtue rather than its sin, and a layered picture of right and wrong, faith and reason, emerges as the story unfolds. In this way, Z for Zachariah stands apart from the more evangelical postapocalyptic portraits that we get from narratives such as The Road or Oblivion, where those who survive are coded as the Blessed Chosen Ones.

In the end, and at the end, the film throws into relief the possibility that faith is the only way to survive. Yet, what that faith finds its grounding in – an all-knowing God, scientific reason or love – is ultimately up to you, when the time comes.

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