Films dealing with the apocalypse tend to evoke a weary atmosphere through a barren, sapless landscape. For instance, Independence Day (Emmerich, 1996), Watchmen (Snyder, 2009) and Justice League (Snyder, 2017) depict crumbling cities, littered with rubble and debris. Similarly, films such as The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999), Snowpiercer (Bong, 2013) and Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015) are set in desolate, uninhabitable wastelands. Evidently, such films tend to construct unwelcoming and sterile landscapes, devoid of life and hope.
Interestingly, Z for Zachariah (Zobel, 2015) subverts this visual trope. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Robert C O’Brien. It takes place after a nuclear fallout, and is told from the perspective of a young lady, Ann Burden. Over the course of the film, Burden encounters two male survivors, John Loomis and Caleb. The former is an atheistic engineer while the latter is a religious miner. Notably, the film takes place in an idyllic, naturalistic setting despite being set after a cataclysmic nuclear apocalypse. In fact, the abundance of flora and fauna brings to mind the biblical Garden of Eden. As such, the film’s setting appears to challenge the sense of finality we would usually expect from an apocalypse.
Unlike conventional films which focus on the physiological implications, Z for Zachariah is more concerned with the psychological consequences of an apocalypse.
This essay posits that the film’s subversion of the visual trope serves to build on the film’s thematic concerns with regard to the apocalypse. Unlike conventional films which focus on the physiological implications, Z for Zachariah is more concerned with the psychological consequences of an apocalypse. Thus, the film’s peaceful environment absolves the characters of any fear and thoughts of mortality. Consequently, Z for Zachariah is able to devote its attention to exploring the existential anxieties which affect and shape one’s conception of science and religion.
In most apocalyptic films, an oppressive environment riddled with the remnants of ruination is constructed in service of the story. As such, the cinematic landscape serves to heighten the film’s tension, as characters grapple with perilous circumstances and unceasing threats. Specifically, their cinematic landscapes are usually characterised by a subdued colour palette and oppressive atmosphere. For instance, in Independence Day, the alien saucers utilise their directed-energy weapons, decimating New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Consequently, these familiar cities are reduced to shadows of their former selves. Remnants of former city buildings are left burning as survivors struggle to navigate the crumbling debris. Similarly, in Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the film’s villain detonates several energy reactors across major cities. The detonation takes place during the film’s climax, during which millions of civilians are literally disintegrated by the ensuring blast. Following the detonation, the cities are bathed in a grey, bluish hue as rubble paves the concrete wasteland. Recently, Snyder’s adaptation of DC Comics’ Justice League featured a hellish landscape. The villain’s attempt to terraform Earth causes the sky to turn scorched red, whilst dark tendrils unfurl and enshroud the suburban areas.
In most apocalyptic films, an oppressive environment riddled with the remnants of ruination is constructed in service of the story.
Though detractors might argue that these films are Hollywood productions backed by hefty special effects budgets, this does not explain the visual nature of the devastation depicted. More often than not, the cinematic landscape is layered with multiple meanings. According to Lukinbeal (2005), there are “four functions that landscape can serve in narrative film: place, space, spectacle and metaphor” (p. 5.). For the aforementioned films, it is evident that the cataclysmic destruction presented is a form of spectacle that aims to generate awe and interest amongst viewers.
Alternatively, the film’s worn-down landscape functions as a character in itself. The environment is literally suffering from the debilitating effects of destruction, rendering it unnourished. For instance, The Matrix depicts a bleak environment that is haunted by the absence of sunlight. Similarly, Snowpiercer presents a desolate and inhospitable Earth, ravaged by an unrelenting winter. Likewise, Mad Max: Fury Road is set in a harsh desert wasteland. Notably, the barren settings of such films perpetuate their premises – post-apocalyptic worlds suffering from perdition and resource shortages. As Lukinbeal (2005) puts it, “films can position place in the foreground as a supporting actor, rather than merely as background scenery” (p. 7.).
Z for Zachariah – An Outlier
Yet, science fiction drama Z for Zachariah subverts this trend. The film takes place in a tranquil, naturalistic setting despite being set after a catastrophic nuclear apocalypse. While most apocalyptic films focus on destitution and ruination, Z for Zachariah chooses to concentrate on restitution and resurrection. The film is largely set in a prairie like locale that is largely unaffected by the nuclear winter. Unlike Mad Max: Fury Road which basks in the visual voyeurism of a world gone to hell, the world we are invited to in Z for Zachariah is relatively healthy and hopeful. While Miller’s characters struggle to find clean water and supplies, Zobel’s characters possess easy access to drinkable water and food. In fact, the characters reside in a pristine village that is left conveniently untouched by radiation and debris. The film’s setting is largely peaceful as there are few obstacles threatening their survival. The abundance of flora and fauna evokes a world that is pregnant with possibilities and teeming with life. Hence, the film’s choice of cinematic landscape is a marked difference from its genre counterparts.
While most apocalyptic films focus on destitution and ruination, Z for Zachariah chooses to concentrate on restitution and resurrection.
Unlike conventional apocalyptic films which are fixated on the struggle for humanity’s survival, the lush environment found in Z for Zachariah focuses on the possibility of Man’s rebirth. The fact that Burden is probably the last woman on Earth is emphasised by how Loomis and Caleb compete for her affections. Furthermore, these affections are not solely driven by romantic intentions alone. There is an underlying pressure for these characters to procreate, and guarantee mankind’s continued existence. Additionally, Burden’s virginal status renders her as a modernised Eve from the Book of Genesis. Thus, the film not only subverts the visual trope of an apocalypse but also the genre itself. Instead of concerning itself with the end of humanity, the film focuses on a new beginning for mankind.
Evidently, the film’s naturalistic setting complements the overarching storyline. The abundance of greenery and flowing rivers evokes a sense of innocence. Though ravaged by radiation and ruination, Burden’s village is left untainted and free. It is a rich oasis laced with potential and possibilities. The film’s choice of setting is thus no longer puzzling and discordant. Instead, Z for Zachariah has achieved what Lukinbeal (2005) describes as “the attribution of human or social characteristics to landscape” (p. 13). The fertile and energetic landscape is a coherent fit with the film’s depiction of Man’s attempt to reconstitute themselves. The literal rebirth of society is highlighted through a corresponding environment.
Reconciling Science and Religion
Nonetheless, the film is not content with exploring Man’s efforts at rebuilding society following their self-destruction. The biblical allusions to the Garden of Eden also serve as a contrast to the influence of science and technology. Thus, the incongruous cinematic landscape found in Z for Zachariah, plays a crucial role in exploring the film’s underlying message – the reconciliation of science and religion with respect to Man’s existential anxieties. The film articulates the conflict between science and religion through intrusive, man-made structures present in the landscape. Specifically, a key subplot within the film involves the characters’ decision to demolish the village church so as to construct a water wheel with the recovered materials. The idea is first mooted by Loomis, an engineer who believes in the material benefits of having a sustainable source of hydroelectric power. Later on, Caleb, a miner, supports Loomis’s suggestion.
The incongruous cinematic landscape found in Z for Zachariah, plays a crucial role in exploring the film’s underlying message – the reconciliation of science and religion with respect to Man’s existential anxieties.
Initially, Burden is resistant to the idea. This is because the church was constructed by her father, who was a preacher. Furthermore, Burden felt uncomfortable with demolishing a church as she believed that it would challenge her deeply held Christian beliefs. Here, religion and spirituality is pitted against science and practicality.
This conflict is paralleled by the film’s setting. Burden’s village remains habitable, solely because it was sheltered by the unique geographic conditions such as the rocky hillsides and a ground-fed water supply. Essentially, it was nature and serendipity that led to her survival. On the other hand, it was Mankind’s indiscriminate abuse of science that led to the nuclear apocalypse in the first place. Essentially, Man has been a poor steward of the natural environment.
Yet, Loomis and Caleb are now proposing that science and technology be introduced into what one could consider as nature’s last paradise. The fact that a church, a symbol of religion, must be sacrificed to allow the entry of science is significant. In Z for Zachariah, science has been likened to the sly serpent that tempted Eve to consume the fruit of the forbidden tree. Here, Burden is being tempted by the allure of comfort and her religious piety is put on the line since the water wheel necessitates the church’s destruction. Consequently, the film’s central conflict is defined by its nuance and complexity. Different ideological motivations are placed against each other, resulting in thoughtful debates and emergent differences. This is in line with Lukinbeal’s (2005) conception of the cinematic landscape as a place “where meaning is contested and negotiated, a veritable arena of cultural politics” (p. 14).
Furthermore, based on Lukinbeal’s (2005) dissection of cinematic landscapes, it is apparent that Z for Zachariah is utilising the landscape as a metaphor. In Cinematic Landscapes, Lukinbeal (2005) posits that the metaphor helps to “bridge the tensions created by the transformation of place into space” (p. 13). Concretely, Lukinbeal (2005) is arguing that filmmakers are able to weave ideology and meaning within the tapestry of the film itself. Essentially, the film’s subversion of the visual trope is done for thematic and narrative purposes. In effect, the hospitable, natural environment becomes more than just a place of residence. The characters’ interactions with the environment serve as an extension to Burden’s internal turmoil. Burden’s response to Loomis’s persuasions is akin to a simulacrum of how one is straddled between the forces of modernity and tradition, science and religion. Hence, the changes to the environment are but Burden’s shifting values and beliefs being manifested physically.
In Cinematic Landscapes, Lukinbeal (2005) concludes that the cinematic landscape “extends far behind the silver screen to intersect how we narrate our identities in our landscapes” (p. 17). In other words, Lukinbeal (2005) is appraising the value of a film’s setting and how it affects self-definition.
This applies to Z for Zachariah, as its seemingly incongruous environment serves to challenge our pre-conceived notions of the apocalypse. According to the film, the end of the world as we know it, need not mean the end of all of Man’s troubles and quandaries. Instead, it is ushering in of a new world. One that is equally affected by Man’s struggle to accommodate immanence and transcendence.
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