Zeitgeist opens its series "Anachronistic World of Steampunk Art" Friday with the feature film Zenith and a concert by the Noisician Coalition. (Film and concert previewed in Gambit.) The series also includes an art show, and the screenings of Zenith are coupled with two short films: Cell Phone Psycho by local filmmaker David S. White and Nickel Children, a dark film about an underground fighting circuit pitting children against one another.
Director Vladan Nikolic's Zenith indulges a futuristic Fight Club-like scenario. Jack (Peter Scanavino) is a brilliant and rebellious young man who is convinced there is a global conspiracy that has rendered "the masses" intellectually dull and compliant through covert genetic engineering and manipulation. He fights the ignorant bliss of his times (2044) by taking and dealing expired medical drugs, which supposedly induce painful experiences that remind him or snap him out of daily stupor. Jack also is tracking his father, who a generation earlier became obsessed with tracking conspiracies, and the two plights to expose sinister forces progress in parallel as Jack pursues a series of tapes his father left for him to discover these hidden truths. If they are cryptic, that's so the authorities won't thwart his father's message in a bottle attempt to alert the world.
Nikolic strives to make the most of the ambiguous nature of conspiracies - claiming that the evidence is everywhere, and also that it's deviously well concealed so no-one can catch the perpetrators. The film is entertaining when it's mimicking Fight Club's gritty violence, indulging night-club sex scenes with a prostitute, who also is concerned with conspiracies, and hatching chase scenes with mysterious thugs and agents.
Frequent and heavy-handed use of known conspiracy theories and obscure experiments in psychology (Milgram studies) are meant to conjure an atmosphere of suspicion, despair and paranoia. It comes off as conspiracy kitsch — a bit gimmicky, which ultimately is not useful to his story, and may or may not help establish the film as a cult favorite. It would make a fun drinking game if you watched purely for references to the Bilderbergers or Masons, etc.
Nikolic tipped his hand early about promoting the film with a gimmicky approach. He created a bogus website for Wadget Industries, and conspiracy hunters could click through a series of websites full of jargon about currency trading, nefarious multi-national corporations, security information, cyber-hacking, etc. But ultimately, there was less to discover other than a social marketing scheme to hype the film. Not that it isn't amusing if you appreciate satire of conspiratorial lunacy and combined corporate logo/ancient runes. But the film is still promoted with a blog, and it features updates concerning unexplained phenomenon - like recent instances of massive bird kills, etc.
The tag line "The movie they don't want you to see," is part of the game of unending paranoia and doublespeak. Nikolic attempts to convince you it could all be true. But for Zenith to be more than pulp entertainment (where it succeeds) it needs to be more ominous. In the end, it's more of an optical illusion that's still amusing, even though you understand it's a trick.