C+

Zenith

The low-budget science-fiction thriller Zenith—credited as “a film by anonymous,” but written, directed, and produced by Vladan Nikolic—is both a movie and an experiment in world-building. Set in a not-too-distant future where human beings have been genetically modified to be happy, Zenith stars Peter Scanavino as an epileptic whose spells of misery let him access the secret knowledge that his numbed fellow citizens have lost. Through his connections in an underground ring of pain-dealing drug lords, Scanavino begins to collect videotapes made decades ago by his father (Jason Robards III), a former Catholic priest whose life changed when a parishioner stumbled into his confessional and started rambling about global conspiracies. Picking up where his father left off, Scanavino investigates whether society is controlled by a secret cabal that masks their nefarious activities as philanthropy.

In addition to Zenith The Film, viewers are encouraged to experience Zenith The Transmedia Experience, which encompasses several websites and YouTube videos, each adding to the movie’s mythology, sometimes with input from fans. (Interested parties should start at crowleylocks.com.) It’s an audacious, impressive feat of imagination, turning a few sets and characters into a generation-spanning look at a society where benevolence and malevolence are so finely interwoven that it’s hard to know what to fight against. Nikolic begins Zenith with a dramatization of the Milgram experiment—the famous psychological test in which test subjects proved willing to commit atrocities if an authority figure ordered them to—and throughout the film and its offshoots, he considers the ways in which we follow trails when prompted.

But while Zenith is fascinating to contemplate as a concept, it doesn’t fully work as a piece of entertainment—at least not in 90-minute-movie form. The film starts strong, introducing Scanavino and Robards while cutting between their initial epiphanies, and it ends strong, too, with father and son facing similar situations before their stories converge unexpectedly. But in between, Nikolic pads out the running time with cheesy-looking sex and fight scenes, and with a doubling-back narrative structure that not only makes the story more confusing, but looks like Nikolic is just trying to save money by reusing footage. People only join a movement if its leaders seem confident and competent. Zenith aces the former, but flubs the latter.

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