DIRECTED BY: Vladan Nikolic
FEATURING: Peter Scanavino, Jason Robards III, Ana Asensio, David Thornton
PLOT: In the year 2044 people have been genetically engineered to feel perpetually happy, so
they perversely seek out illegal drugs that bring intense pain; in this society, a dealer in pharmaceutical misery stumbles upon what may be a generations old conspiracy that goes by the code name “Zenith.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: More confusing than weird, Zenith is at the same time a laudable and thought-provoking, but forced and undramatic, attempt to create a cult-y reality-bender along the lines of more organic puzzle movies like Primer.
COMMENTS: Zenith is one bewildering conspiracy movie. It creates frustration and paranoia by chopping up its narrative with lots of fast-forwards, rewinds, out-of-sequence scenes, and even episodes of déjà vu. Elisions, false clues and dead end leads increase the confusion quotient. Although the sloppiness of the story is an intentional strategy meant to put us inside the paranoid heads of the protagonists, the procedure still occasionally comes off as the director jerking the viewer around—especially when it comes to the rug-pulling conclusion, which tempts alienating the movie’s core audience. Writer/director Vladan Nikolic crafts an intricate scenario here that may please fans of “difficult” stories, but it’s more rewarding, above and beyond the plot level, to think of the movie as an examination of the conspiracy fan’s psychology. “Dumb” Jack, the pain-pill pusher (a grungy and intense Peter Scanavino), begins the story thinking of his defrocked priest father, Ed, who’s obsessed with trivia about the Illuminati and the Bilderbreg group, as a crazy old coot. But the more he watches old VHS tapes of dad’s decades-old investigations of the “Zenith” conspiracy, the more he comes to be just like him, until at the end the two men have become virtual doppelgängers. The movie suggests that it may be able to easier to get sucked into irrational conspiratorial beliefs than it seems, especially seeing as how it asks the viewer to take pleasure in following the clues and tagging along as they track down that mysterious man who, if only he can only be located and cornered, will Explain what it’s All About. Any good conspiracy thriller needs a red herring, and this turns out to be one of Zenith‘s downfalls—because the major red herring here is the science fiction setting, and it turns out to be more interesting than the main storyline. The movie creates the intriguing prospect of a society in which everyone has been genetically engineered to be eternally happy. Paradoxically, this perpetual pleasantness creates a black market in the items Dumb Jack specializes in—”heavy duty tranquilizers with massive side effects, expired thirty years ago”—so thrill seekers can feel something painful, novel and intense. The idea is a classic science fiction conceit: what happens when technology purports to change the basic nature of human beings? If people are happy all the time, will they get inevitably grow jaded? Everything in the utopian/dystopian world of 2044, except the nightclubs, looks run down—peeling paint, missing windowpanes, light poles lying on the ground. Is the suggestion that, with gratification built into the genome, the ambition to keep the world clean and orderly has disappeared? These are fascinating speculative questions that cut to the core of the human experience, and Zenith could have easily filled up ninety minutes exploring the philosophical and satirical ramifications of a society built on a foundation of unearned satisfaction. There seem to be two movies cooking in the same cinematic oven here, and although the thriller conspiracy comes out reasonably well done, the dystopian parable winds up only half-baked. Still, though there’s some frustration, and the movie never really settles into a groove, the ideas alone make it worth seeing. The twist ending, taken literally, is shopworn; but after some consideration, you may conclude that Nikolic has overlaid a clever meta-twist on the tired cliché. There’s a false ambiguity to the conclusion, and the temptation to pick the less compelling of the competing versions of events may be related to the overriding theme of the movie.
Zenith is relying on a bit of marketing gimmickry in hopes of building an audience. The movie starts off with blatantly fake disclaimers stating that the movie contains “illegal material” and proclaiming that filmmakers will not be held responsible for damages resulting from the viewing of the film. It also professes to be directed by “Anonymous” (Nikolic is quietly billed in the end credits as “experiment supervisor”). Furthermore, Zenith is a transmedia experience: if you go to the movie’s website and follow the “Stop Zenith” link, you’ll be taken to a website (which links to other fake websites, including Dumb Jack’s time-traveling blog) that claims to provide more information on the film’s conspiracy.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“During the strange third act, derangement seems to spread from one character to the next like a plague, infecting not only the players but also the film itself… the indescribably odd ending only sends the viewer off more confused.”–Glenn Heath Jr., Slant Magazine (contemporaneous)