Z for Zachariah (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

God is my shield, who saves the upright in heart.

Psalm 7:10


           Caleb, John & Ann enjoy lunch together. (c) 2015 Roadside Attractions/Lions Gate

 Director Craig Zobel and writer Nissar Modi’s film is one of the more unusual post-apocalyptic movies that I have seen. It is set in a secluded valley somewhere in the mountains where a devout young woman named Ann (Margot Robbie) is the soul survivor, with only her frisky dog for companionship. Unlike so many films of this genre, there are no scenes of destruction and terror, no radiation-created zombies attacking the healthy—indeed, no violence at all, just the struggle to survive physically and cope with relationships that arise when the sole survivor of her village discovers she is not alone.

One day while Ann is out scouting near her farmhouse she comes across a black man dressed in an elaborate radiation suit and pulling a cart full of his possessions. At first she watches from afar, but when, after testing the air and finding no radiation in the valley, he shouts for joy and strips everything off, quickly plunging into a pool beneath a waterfall, she rushes forward yelling at him. Startled by her command to get out of the water, he grabs his pistol when he clambers out. She assures him she intends no harm, telling him that the water he has bathed in comes from outside the valley, and thus is contaminated by the radiation that has killed off most of life outside. As he quickly grows sicker, she rushes him to her house where, injects him with the medicine he has brought along. Through the ensuing days she nurses him back to health, until at last he is able to get up and stand on his own.

John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) turns out to be a research scientist, and thus not impressed with her belief in a caring God. Nonetheless he comes to admire how she has been able to cope on her own. For an unexplained reason the valley has not fallen prey to the nuclear destruction that devastated the outside world, though what happened to the other villagers remains a mystery. When Ann, clad in a homemade radiation-shielded suit, visits the town we see no dead bodies in its deserted streets and buildings. She did have a family, but they went in search of other survivors, leaving her behind in the valley. Ann survives by raising produce on the farm, trapping small animals, and scavenging canned goods from a nearby convenience store. She plows by hand because she has used up the gas for the tractor. John tells her he can extract gasoline from the convenience store tanks even though there is no electricity available to operate the pumps, which he does to her delight.

We see that the allegorical reference to the Eden story comes from one of the many books Ann has brought back from the town library. It is a children’s religious book named for the first man, A Is For Adam. We surmise from the film’s title that John is the last man, Z for Zachariah. Ann, whose father was minister at the tiny wooden church near the farm, has found comfort playing the old pump organ (though we hear no familiar hymns, just non-descript organ music). Thus the building is a source of comfort for her. John however sees the church as providing the lumber and hardware to build a water wheel to generate electricity for them for light and heat during the upcoming winter. When Ann resists his plan to tear down the structure, he sets it aside.

Over the course of weeks John grows more than just fond of her, despite the age gap between them. She, still a virgin, also develops romantic feelings for him, but though not a man of faith, he possesses a core of ethics that keeps them from satisfying their sexual desires too soon. We see in a scene in which they drink wine together that Ann is not one of those frigid church girls that populate so many movies—indeed, one of the things I like about the depiction of her is that she is sincere in her faith, but free from a narrow moralistic lifestyle. Ann enjoys the bottle of wine they share at a meal, and thanks to an old wind-up gramophone, enjoys slow dancing with John.

And not only with John. A third person enters the picture in the person of Caleb (Chris Pine) who shows up with a heavy backpack. John is highly suspicious of him, but Ann persuades him to allow Caleb to pitch his tent for the night. The one night turns into many as Caleb, deciding the valley is a good place to stay, moves into the house, and through his claim to faith, slowly into Ann’s heart. We wonder if John’s reserve toward him is just jealousy–which it partly is—or if he has genuine grounds for suspecting the slick talking stranger’s trustworthiness. In allegorical terms, is Caleb the Snake in Eden? Caleb at least provides a welcome extra pair of hands after Ann reluctantly agrees to the tearing down of the church and using the lumber for John’s proposed waterwheel for powering the old farm generator. There is also the hard labor of cutting down enough cable from the old powerlines and stringing it out from the waterfall to the farmhouse. Apparently setting aside his jealousy out of concern for what is best for Ann, he tells her that it is okay by him if she chooses Caleb over him.

I have not read the source of the film, the novel by Robert C. O’Brien, but I have read that the third person is an addition, one that might upset readers of the book. However, just in terms of the film, Caleb adds greatly to the plot and themes of survival, companionship, jealousy, and faith. The film takes its time in developing the relationships, especially in its depiction of virgin Ann’s blossoming sexuality. There are so many tender moments to treasure in the film. All three actors are perfectly cast, each convincingly portraying their thoughts and feelings through facial expression and body language as much as through words. All through the film viewers are kept off balance by developments, a feeling which is intensified by the film’s ambiguous ending. You might be wondering about this long after the credits have stopped rolling. I am pretty certain this will make Visual Parables “Top Ten” list—and would love to see it mentioned at Oscar time.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Oct. issue of VP.


Gravity (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our Content Adviserories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star Rating (1-5): 4.5


Astronauts Dr. Ryan Jones and Mission Commander Mat Kowalski are stranded in space when debris destroys their space shuttle.
(c) 2013 Warner brothers

 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

            Psalm 31:2-5

We see no evidence in this suspenseful space film that Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a believer, but if she were, the above words of the psalmist might well have been her prayer. A medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, she is space suited up and teamed with another astronaut repairing a device on the Hubble telescope’s extended arm while the mission commander, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), is enjoying using a thruster pack to propel himself around. This being his last mission, he regrets that he will fall short by a few hours of beating the space walk record of a Russian cosmonaut. The three are chatting with each other and Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris, a delightful bit of voice casting because he was one of the stars of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13), Matt repeating an old astronaut joke, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” A few minutes later this turns out to be prophetic when Houston sends an emergency warning that a Russian station has blown up, the debris hurtling their way at 55,000 mph.  When Ryan is slow to respond to Matt’s command to stop her work and reboard their station, he yells at her to get moving. By then jagged bits and pieces of the remains of the Russian station are flying by them.

Thus, after a marvelous single shot scene lasting about 13 minutes, the roller coaster sequence begins in which the two struggle in zero gravity, first to connect with each other, and then to decide what to do when their station is destroyed, killing all aboard. The third astronaut out working with them also is killed. Ryan, already struggling with the nausea of motion sickness, has trouble when the long cargo arm of the station breaks loose, swinging her wildly around and around and around. When she extricates herself from it, she keeps spinning out of control. Thanks to the calmness of Matt, she overcomes her momentary panic, and at last he is able to connect with her. They are running low on oxygen, so he decides they must head for the Russian International Space Station which should have a shuttle to transport them safely back to earth. There follows a series of mini-disasters that could be regarded as confirmation of Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Their contact with Mission Control is severed, so they are completely on their own.

This is one film that truly deserves that overworked expletive “Awesome!” Director Alfonso Cuarón, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, as well as his co-script writer son Jonas, has produced a variation of the old survival film worthy of placing alongside of Cast Away and Life of Pi. And not since t he latter film and Avatar has 3-D photography been used so effectively—and is so essential to fully experiencing the film. For once 3-D is not a financial rip off to increase a film’s profits.

Thus Gravity is not a film to wait for until it comes out on DVD in order to save a few bucks. You owe it to yourself to see it on a large screen, with the 3-D really bringing you into the action. When Matt reaches out for a special wrench or nut that is floating toward you, you have to stifle the urge to dodge the gloved hand. There are spectacular, glorious shots of the earth and stars, but equally effective are the close ups of Sandra Bullock’s face, which might remind film buffs of the almost exclusive use of such close ups in Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ms. Bullock is fully up to the challenge of conveying through her facial expressions the gamut of emotions, ranging from nausea, fear, and near panic to relief and determination to survive. The camera at times seamlessly moves from the external or third person POV into her helmet so that we see her in extreme close up, and then it swivels so that we are sharing her perspective on her predicament. She also achieves the almost ballet-like motions of a dancer in the sequence in which, shedding her bulky space suit, she floats her way through a long corridor of a space shuttle. With the least amount of dialogue of any of her films, it is through her facial expressions and the movements—or lack of them when during her period of despair she assumes a fetal position –that she reveals what a consummate actress she is. If you appreciated Tom Hank’s solo feat in Castaway, you are sure to love her performance in this masterful film.

We are reminded at the beginning of the film that nothing can be heard in space, where there is no atmosphere to convey the sound. This makes the sound of Ryan’s labored breathing all the more effective, reminding us that her oxygen is in short supply. Her struggle to reach the ISS, and from there the even more distant Chinese space station, becomes an epic journey of the mind and spirit as well as of the body, a testament of human pluck and perseverance. Steven Price’s musical soundtrack stops at just the right moments so that the silence of space is emphasized all the more.

From one standpoint the coldness and indifference of space might lead to an atheistic outlook—what difference does it make if these two humans live or die out there almost four hundred miles from home? On the other hand, for those who believe, to quote from William Cowper’s hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,” Ryan’s moment of hallucination might be the modern equivalent of Joseph’s life saving dreams early on in the Gospel of Matthew. Filled with despair at one point in the Chinese station so that she is resigned to death, Ryan turns down the oxygen to hasten the inevitable. But her hallucination awakens her to the clue for the possibility of survival that she had not thought of before, and she springs into action. Scriptures in many places suggest that dreams or hallucinations at times have an external, as well as an internal, source. Of course, there is no way to prove this, but then isn’t that what faith is all about? As Hebrews 11:1 puts it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Again, I urge you not to put off seeing this film, one that will no doubt be up for multiple awards, from Best Actress to all of the technical awards that the Motion Picture Academy offers. “Awesome!” really does sum up this film.

 The full version of this review, including a set of 9 discussion questions, will be in the November 2013 issue of the journal Visual Parables, available to subscribers near the end of October.