Sundance 2015: Z For Zachariah first-look reaction

If the word 'apocalypse' conjures up images of scorched deserts, bow-wielding heroines and Mad Max-style action, get ready to have that preconception rocked by Z For Zachariah. Enjoying considerable buzz here at Sundance 2015, its killer cast (Margot Robbie, Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor), dreamy aesthetic and subdued undercurrent of menace mark it out as a refreshing spin on end-of-the-world flicks, a galaxy away from the likes of The Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Inspired by Robert C. O'Brien's 1974 novel, Z For Zachariah is set in a post-apocalyptic America, where a mysterious radioactive agent has wiped out much of the population. Believing herself to be the only survivor, Ann (Robbie) lives on a remote farm cradled in the wilderness, a dog her only company. When intense stranger Loomis (Ejiofor) unexpectedly stumbles onto her land, fatally sick with radiation poisoning, she has no choice but to take him in. And as the two grow close, things are complicated further by the arrival of a second stranger – a twinkly-eyed presence, Caleb (Pine) threatens to rupture the farm's delicate equilibrium anew.

Those who've read O'Brien's book (it's a classroom favourite in the US) will have noticed that the film takes great liberties with the original, more teen-friendly story. And though purists may find the changes off-putting, director Craig Zobel (Compliance) has concocted something equally riveting. Serving up an incongruous vision of a weirdly lush yet deadly future, his film is a lean, affecting drama where the action is almost exclusively internal – its emotional payloads are elegant, unhurried and ultimately devastating.

Revelling in ambiguities and creeping tension, Z For Zachariah is less concerned with how the apocalypse happened, and more with how it impacts those left behind. How does this trio's predicament inform their decisions? And if there's nobody policing their actions, just what are the limits?

That set-up is powered to triumphant heights by its lead trio. Ejiofor is predictably gripping, and Pine essays surprising depth, but it's Robbie who steals the show. Fresh from her breakout role in Wolf Of Wall Street, she's a revelation as the naïve Ann, confidently striking delicate notes that lend Z For Zachariah a trembling, intoxicating frailty. It may be the end of the world, but this is just the beginning for an actress who's destined for super-stardom.

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