Monday, January 17, 2011

New World Order: Zenith

There is something seductive about conspiracy theory rhetoric. It often posits a straw-man’s alternative of a “coincidental” conception of history, while capitalizing on class resentments. What conspiracy theorists often lack, perhaps assuming it goes without saying, is a compelling motive to explain why those with such a vested interest in the current system would want to hasten its destruction. Such is also the case with Vladan Nikolic’s Zenith (trailer here), a frequently clever near future speculative thriller with the same strengths and weaknesses of its protagonists’ conspiracy pamphlets that opens this Wednesday in New York at the Kraine Theater.

“Dumb” Jack Crowley sells drugs. Since the general population has been genetically modified into a state of banal satisfaction, one would think business would be slow. However, rather than a high, Crowley offers life-affirming pain induced by his stash of outdated prescription drugs. He is also known to sample his own wares. In the grimy post-industrial world, money is meaningless, but Crowley can barter his drugs for nearly everything, including a set of elusive VHS videotapes recorded by Crowley’s eccentric father forty years ago.

In X-Files parlance, Ed Crowley wanted to believe. He became a priest in an attempt to find his faith. It did not work, but a fateful encounter in his confessional turned him into a conspiracy buff. Leaving the priesthood, Ed Crowley sounds increasingly like a man who has heard too much Alex Jones on the radio (which would be about half a show) as he races around videotaping his strange investigations with his loyal sidekick-cameraman in tow.

Nikolic (a.k.a. Anonymous) nicely dovetails his two narrative time-frames, culminating with a neatly symmetrical climax. However, the final twists are not as mind-blowing as they are intended to be. What really works in Zenith is the credibly cruddy dystopian milieu created by the design team of Brian Goodwin and Grace G.G. Yun. Viewers get a visceral sense of this dreary world and the resulting compulsion to experience pain worthy of an existential Dostoyevsky anti-hero.

Unfortunately, Zenith is hampered by a villain weak in both the conception and the execution. The malevolent Berger (as in Bilderberger?) is a pharmaceutical tycoon who ought to be up doo-doo’s creek with the collapse of the world economy. Yet for some reason, he seems to be behind it all. Actor David Thornton also seems bored with the evil businessman cliché, playing Berger without any scenery-chewing, moustache-twisting zest. In contrast, Peter Scanavino and Jason Robards III are both quite intense and dynamic as junior and senior Crowley, respectively.

Aside from a bit of big pharma paranoia, Zenith is relatively free of ideological baggage, at least within the film itself. However, part of the underlying concept involves a network of supporting websites and viral videos, some of which indulge in rather extreme partisanship, including Wikileaks fan-worship. It is a good way to needlessly alienate half their potential audience. Genre fans should also take note, the Zenith sites also describe the film as “steampunk,” but there is nothing neo-Victorian about it. Though not perfect, “cyberpunk” would be a more fitting term.

Zenith sometimes offers flashes of DIY coolness, but lacks the kind of colorful villain required in genre films. It shows legitimate promise, but it is not clear the Zenith concept will expand in rewarding directions. For the intrigued and the paranoid obsessed, it opens in New York at the Kraine Theater (traditionally a dramatic venue) this Wednesday (1/19).