It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The Garden of Eden isn't big enough for three people, it seems. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine's characters find that out the hard way in "Z for Zachariah," an adaptation of a posthumously-published novel by Robert C. O'Brien ("Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh"). It's set in the aftermath of unspecified decline-and-fall that definitely included nuclear weapons; pockets of radiation are everywhere, even in remote rural areas, and the film includes sequences where radiation-proof suits are used and people talk about underground bases and protocols. It's hard enough just to survive out here, or so we're told; forget about rebuilding civilization.
And yet that's exactly what the film's three characters (the only ones onscreen) try to do. The story begins with Ann (Robbie), a farm woman who inherited the place from her beloved church-building saint of a father, finding the title character (Eijofor) and nursing him back to health. The first third or so of the film is a two-character play that shows Zachariah gaining strength and getting to know Ann, who's sweet but skittish and socially awkward (they both are—who wouldn't be under the circumstances?), and forming something like a partnership, with the potential to become something else. Pine's character, Caleb, eventually enters the picture; I don't think this is a spoiler considering that Pine's name and face are on the poster. The addition of a third character, and one who's as ridiculously good-looking as the other two, injects a welcome note of tension into what was otherwise feeling like an exceptionally acted and photographed (in widescreen, by the masterful Tim Orr) psychodrama about really, really nice people.
There are racial and religious overtones to the way that Ann, Caleb and Zachariah try to work together, and relate to each other, and especially in the way that Ejiofor plays Zachariah, an engineer, as a man who worked hard, became a success in his chosen field, found a mate that he loved dearly, then lost everything in the cataclysm, and now finds himself having to compete with a younger, more cooly charismatic white man for the only available female. To make matters worse, Ann and Caleb seem to have an immediate chemistry that's more labored than the more paternal, or at least big-brotherly, energy that she has with Zachariah. Race is never explicitly mentioned in the film, except rather pointedly in one scene, but it colors, pardon the word, every suffering closeup of Zachariah as he watches Ann and Caleb flirt and trade not-so-furtive glances.
As for religion, Ann's dad built the local church, and Zachariah strongly advises tearing it down for raw material to create a wheel that will generate electricity from a local waterfall. As adapted by Nissan Modi and directed by Craig Zobel ("The Great World of Sound," "Compliance"), the movie is rather coy in how it frames Zachariah's (and later, Caleb's) enthusiasm for tearing down the church. It represents a destruction of the old order to create something new, but also (conversely) a rejection of the very patriarchal authority that both Zachariah and Caleb often represent to Ann, and that Ann's father represented to her back in the day.