There's a strain of science fiction writing that evokes a chilly kind of coziness, usually by introducing us to individuals or small groups of people who have found their way to the country in the hope of escaping encroaching doom. John Wyndham's bleak, beautiful 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids is one example; Robert C. O'Brien's tense, thoughtful 1974 young-adult thriller Z for Zachariah is another. In both books, the countryside offers a safe cocoon far from the menace of the city. The wolf — or the nuclear radiation, or the menacing ambulatory plant form — may be at the door, but inside, survivors get to experience the D.I.Y. joys of getting rusty old generators up and running, or hustling up surprisingly satisfying meals out of canned goods scrounged from the cupboards of abandoned dwellings. These stories offer a fantasy of turning back the clock and returning to a simpler way of living, simply because there's no other choice. They're like dark cottages with a beckoning light shining inside.
Craig Zobel's adaptation of Z for Zachariah veers so drastically from the source material that people who love the book may feel betrayed. In the novel, Ann, a fifteen-year-old farm girl whose valley has been miraculously spared from a devastating nuclear war, learns that she isn't, as she had sometimes thought, the last living person on the planet: A stranger trundles into her deserted world, and if he initially offers the comforts of human companionship, he also brings greed and selfishness into Ann's little Eden.
If you think of Z for Zachariah as an inversion of the Adam and Eve story — this time, it's not a woman who causes the downfall — then the changes that Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi have made don't seem so drastic thematically, even though they depart radically in terms of plot. For one thing, they invent a new character, which changes the dynamic profoundly. Yet the film works on its own terms, capturing, at least, the mournful vibe of O'Brien's book. What's more, Zobel's revision opens up plenty of space for the three actors who inhabit this circumscribed little world, all of whom are terrific. Ann (Margot Robbie, looking believably farm-fresh and nothing at all like the scene-stealing vixen she played in The Wolf of Wall Street) lives alone on her family's farm, a speckled dog named Faro her only companion. She wraps herself in protective gear and makes occasional trips into an abandoned village, chiefly to pick up books from the ghost-town library; there's also a general store nearby, which she regularly raids for supplies. One day she and Faro spot a cart by the side of the road. It belongs to Loomis (the always extraordinary Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist who has left the bunker that saved his life — he's able to explore the world with the help of a one-of-a-kind radiation-proof suit, and his search for a sustainable pocket of civilization has led him right into Ann's world.
Ann is at first wary of Loomis, but later becomes curious about him in all ways, including sexually. Loomis is thinking along the same lines, but he's more a man of science than religion, and Ann's unwavering faith makes him nervous. In a small but pivotal scene, he scans the titles on the household bookshelf: There are works by Billy Graham and a manual called Family-Friendly Farming, as well as a religious book for children, A Is for Adam. If Adam was the first man, Zachariah, trailing at the end of the alphabet, must surely be the last. Is Loomis the last man? As it turns out, no: A dirty, exhausted figure soon emerges from the ravaged landscape. Caleb (Chris Pine, stalwart and sensitive) has eyes that are even bluer than Ann's, and he's had the same rural, religious upbringing. He's a better match for Ann, and Loomis knows it. (Zobel employs a quick, sly joke to also address the fact that Caleb, unlike Loomis, is white.)
From here, the story might have evolved into your ho-hum exploration of romantic and sexual jealousy, but Zobel and his trio of performers dig into something murkier and more primal. This is Zobel's fourth fiction feature, and although he earned a great deal of acclaim for his 2012 Compliance — about a fast-food restaurant manager who follows company protocol too closely, with disastrous consequences — Z for Zachariah is a much more accomplished and nuanced picture. Zobel and cinematographer Tim Orr show us both the seductive comforts and the menace of this strange new world: A scene in which Ann and Loomis share a special homemade dinner, complete with purloined wine from the abandoned store, is lit with a romantic, reassuring glow. Later scenes, in which Caleb and Loomis eye each other like jealous animals, suggest that the tendency toward male aggression can never be fully tamed, even when it comes down to the last two men on Earth. Still, both Loomis and Caleb are more complex than you'd think — there's tenderness beneath Loomis's posturing, especially. And Zobel fearlessly goes for a genuinely melancholy ending: Forget the apocalypse; person-to-person human relations will always be the thing that hangs us up.
But Z for Zachariah may be most interesting for its refusal to scoff at spiritual faith. Loomis may glance dubiously at those book titles, but Ann, her forthright, gentle manner balanced by an almost feral determination to survive, is the heart of the movie. Whether or not we share her specific belief in an all-knowing, benevolent God is beside the point: Somehow, she's still here on the planet, and something, even if it's just a force deep within herself, has kept her there.
Right-wing fundamentalist religious nuts have, understandably, made many of us wary of any common notion of "faith." In contemporary culture, to admit that you believe in God, or a God, is to risk being branded a hillbilly, an enemy of free thought. It's much cooler to call yourself an atheist, as a way of advertising yourself as a person who can't be hoodwinked. But Z for Zachariah — without being militantly pro-religion in any sense — leaves the door open to the idea of faith as a means of sustenance. In that sense, it's a daring picture. At the very least, it suggests you're really sunk if you consider yourself superior to wonder.
Z for Zachariah
95 Minutes. Rated PG-13. Directed by Craig Zobel. Written by Nissar Modi. Based on the novel by Robert C. O'Brien. Starring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine. Opens August 28.