by Jay Seaver
"Zenith" is a bad no-budget science fiction movie, but at least it's considerate enough to place itself toward the end of the alphabet. After all, while it did somehow manage to get itself booked in a few theaters in advance of its video-on-demand premiere, it will mostly be lurking on long menus displayed by cable boxes and computers, and this positioning means that potential viewers probably will never get to it at all, and if they work their way through all the other options listed before "Zenith" - well, what the heck, they may as well watch it. By that point, they've probably seen worse.In 2044, people are genetically engineered to be happy all the time, but that didn't work out as well as planned; instead, folks are mostly numb. Jack (Peter Scanavino), a medical school dropout, roots through old buildings to find expired drugs whose side effects of massive pain are highly prized, testing on himself. He's got a mute sidekick, Nimble (Al Nazemian), who's good with a gun, and soon meets Lisa (Ana Asensio), who surprises him by using the sort of emotionally-charged words he recites into a mirror just to remind himself they exist. One day, he comes across a suitcase with videotapes of his father Ed (Jason Robards III), and gets sucked into investigating the bizarre conspiracy theories that the unhinged man rants about - but even though the tapes are thirty-odd years old, it seems he's getting into something dangerous.
Thirty-odd years in our past, Zenith might have seemed like something exciting or thought-provoking, maybe even praiseworthy. Today, though, it just feels old-hat and actually rather lazy. The conspiracy theory lacks a particular hook to distinguish it from the dozens we've seen before. The world of the future is of the hand-me-down variety, where the filmmakers try to make a "gritty", "realistic" tomorrow out of disheveled clothes and run-down locations; it would work better if it implies a more specific string of events than just general decay. The last-act twists are surprising but not shocking because even if they were things the audience hadn't seen many times before, they don't undercut anything that the audience has really taken to heart. It's a movie made out of the same elements two generations of previous independent filmmakers have used to do sci-fi on the cheap, without any new additions or clever combinations.
If that were the extent of its problems, the movie would just be bland, or at worst, boring. Unfortunately, it's not just a case of writer/director Vladan Nikolic cranking out flavor-free film product under the name "Anonymous". He loads the movie up with gimmicks that add little and are applied poorly and haphazardly, and the dreary narration is just the start. For example, while we learn Ed's story as Jack and company discover his numbered VHS tapes (and, seriously, Ed's recording on VHS in 2012?), about halfway through the movie, those scenes start to include shots from other angles. There's no apparent significance to this change - it's not an indication that this is information that Jack and company are not receiving, for instance; Nikolic just isn't capable of working within the framework he creates for himself.
It's not the greatest cast. Jason Robards III doesn't exactly live up to his father's name, for instance, and neither Ana Asensio, Michael Cates, nor Arthur French make an especially compelling supporting cast in the future, and once you get past them, it's even rougher. Peter Scanavino actually isn't bad as Jack, though; he doesn't generally rise above his material, but he gets the most out of it.Hopefully, Scanavino will get a chance to do better; after all, it's hard to do worse. In the meantime, if you get far enough down on your cable system's sci-fi VOD menu to find "Zenith", then maybe it's time to start searching another section.
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originally posted: 02/04/11 23:38:05