A futuristic thriller tied to a web of conspiracy
It’s not surprising that Vladan Nikolic’s “Zenith’’ — a low-budget, indie futuristic thriller trying to get noticed in Oscar season— might resort to Internet-based gimmicks to intrigue an audience. And there are gimmicks aplenty.
From the opening teaser that warns of legal threats and “illegal images’’ to the billing of the director as “Experiment Supervisor,’’ “Zenith’’ is a high-concept, brave-new-world sci-fi puzzle that invites Internet audiences to fill narrative gaps by visiting assorted websites and adding their own clues and plot points to the film’s twists and time leaps.
For traditionalists who prefer their movies unfettered and non-interactive, “Zenith’’ happens to be pretty good, though it’s longer on style and atmosphere than clarity of storytelling.
The film is set amid a grim wasteland of warehouses in the year 2044. People have been genetically modified to be happy and ageless, while words like “solace,’’ “consciousness,’’ and “virtue’’ have been scrapped from the language. Former medical student Jack (Peter Scanavino), the film’s narrator, makes a living trolling the stark, graffiti-strewn streets and dealing expired pharmaceuticals, whose painful side effects are coveted by citizens eager to be jolted out of their numbness. By night, Jack sits in a squalid room and memorizes definitions of banned words.
He’s drawn into the web of a conspiracy by the sudden appearance of 30-year-old videotapes made by his late father, Ed (Jason Robards III), a former priest who became convinced of the existence of a covert group bent on destroying civilization. This group’s machinations were recorded in a book titled “Zenith.’’ The script plays like a CliffsNotes version of “The Da Vinci Code’’: Jack descends into an increasingly complex underworld of secret societies and shady characters, including Lisa (Ana Asensio), a hooker with a creepy, surgically enhanced father (David Thornton), and a bookstore proprietor (Bernie Rachelle) whose frenzied, epithet-laden rants may be the words of a truth-teller or a madman. “Zenith’’ skillfully weaves flashbacks of Ed’s 2012 investigation, captured on his tapes, and his son’s desperate attempts to revisit the mystery decades into the future.
With its bleak fatalism, “Zenith’’ at times echoes futuristic thrillers such as “12 Monkeys’’ and “Children of Men.’’ The shoestring budget is often obvious, with one too many strobe-light sequences, and it is dispiriting that even a movie set in 2044 has a gold-hearted hooker as the hero’s object of desire. But “Zenith’’ boasts terrific photography by Vladimir Subotic and offers a few genuine surprises. Director Nikolic shouldn’t remain “anonymous’’ for long: He gets solid performances from all the actors and creates an atmosphere of mounting paranoia that’s grim and chilling.
Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.