I’ve often wondered why post-apocalyptic drama is so popular – I count myself a fan of them, but I don’t know if I can fully articulate why. Almost every single one of them portray a world I wouldn’t want to live in: I’m not ashamed to admit I love my internet, I love my convenient life and all the trappings that come with it. I also wouldn’t survive long in the kind of world I tend to enjoy in fiction. Let’s face it, it would suck. Living day to day, evading the horrors of not having enough to eat, or clean water to drink. Instead of my current cushy job and the comfortable life it affords me, I couldn’t abide a medieval life of weak, failing crops, anarchy … loneliness. I admit I would cash in my chips early.
But it’s a popular subgenre – many people are fans like me. The Walking Dead continues to put up big numbers, The Road is terrifically brutal and nasty, but achingly poignant – the movie AND Cormac McCarthy’s stunning book – and look at the success of Mad Max: Fury Road last year. Among Stephen King books, many fans say his best book is The Stand. My second all-time favourite novel is the brilliant Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban. So many YA franchises are all about the post-apocalypse: freed from the yoke of adults and authority, the appeal to young readers is obvious – the slate is wiped clean and only they can make it right! But where lies the appeal to others? I can’t put my finger on it for myself, but I like them. The protagonists, whether they admit it or not, struggle towards a new beginning through our failures. We in the modern age have messed up big time. We either blew it up or infected it, and our hubris got in the way of seeing the dangers. The survivors pay for the sins of the fathers, and we watch them and wonder; will they – we – survive?
In Craig Zobel’s Z For Zachariah (from the novel by Robert C O’Brien), the stakes are not so high. The backstory is that some undetermined recent nuclear event has caused (at least) a North American post-apocalyptic environment. Suicide Squad’s Margo Robbie plays Annie, the movie’s lead – a cute, fresh faced young woman living alone, and lonely, in a charming little country house in a beautifully picturesque valley relatively untouched by the rest of the world. It’s so unspoiled and pure that maybe you’d think, “This is exactly how the end of the world should be!”. You still have your cute little house, your fresh air, no assholes to put up with anymore, no bad reality TV, no pollution to hurt the Earth or ISIS killing innocents abroad. The end of the world is a catastrophe, but as Brian Aldiss referred to the books of John Wyndham, it’s a cosy catastrophe. Less of a terrible end-of-all-things personal hell, this kind of post-apocalyptic tale is big on personal escapism. Isn’t the end of the world more palatable when you can live it out in peace and quiet? Ann is a lonely soul, but survivors in other stories would kill to have the life she has.
Into this lonely world comes Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist, and later Caleb (Chris Pine), a handsome guy who shares her values. Cue love triangle … but no real questions about the world out there. It’s all very, very refined and pastoral, with only the odd moment of true humanity surfacing now and then. It’s all so quiet that if you missed the first few minutes you’d surely think you were watching a Lifetime channel made for TV movie about a plucky country girl and the two drifters she encounters. The movie doesn’t have any giant issues, because it takes the highway to get from point A to point B. Miles and miles of unchanging blandness, instead of the interesting, curious, slightly dangerous choice of getting there on patched up two-lane blacktop. I haven’t read the book, but the screenplay by Nissar Modi plays things way too safe here, and the result is a pedestrian and uninvolving character study about three people who don’t have a lot of things to say about anything bigger than the situation in which they find themselves. What if the world ended, but there was nobody around to see it? The three characters in this movie don’t care enough about the bigger world out there, to the point where it’s easy to start wondering what they really care about. The same story could have been told about three people in a more hostile environment, because people can be lonely anywhere, any time – it’s the backdrop for these feelings that invigorate a story, whether that’s a post-apocalyptic narrative, the riches of Beverly Hills or the slums of Rio. Movies allow us to relax our minds for a couple of hours; we sit there and give ourselves to the cast before us, and the crew that put everything together behind the scenes, but a movie like this is pure bait and switch. It offers us the chance to watch people triumph over overwhelming odds, and by doing so allow us to wonder how we would fare in that world, what hard choices would we have to make, but Z For Zachariah only makes us wonder what it would be like to move to the country.