What happens if we cure death? What if we could bring someone back from the Great Beyond and into a world where the grass is a little less green? More than a science fiction concept, this idea set the standard as the first sci-fi tale ever published in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And this lingering question has persisted up to Pet Sematary and through our latest Blumhouse Production: The Lazarus Effect. Named after that biblical fellow who proved to have merely one foot in the grave, this Lazarus pulls from all of the above material for an intended February fright. If only it lived up to its animated namesake.
As the story of a group of researchers attempting to play God and finding out that they are actually dealing with something far more hellacious, The Lazarus Effect is the quintessential B-horror film that builds on a very tantalizing concept, and then buries it deep in the earth for the sake of familiar jump scares and failing light switches. However, it does enjoy one genuine thrill where no screeching score or sound effects are necessary: Olivia Wilde’s wonderfully demented performance as a modern day Frankenstein monster who revels in the wrath of a woman scorned. And being awakened from her brief trip to Hell has left her very scorned, indeed.
When the movie starts, Wilde is the very charming if somewhat tightly wound Zoe, one of the lead medical researchers of the Lazarus Project at an unnamed university. She is a kind-hearted woman with a terrible childhood secret that haunts her and feeds into her Catholic guilt as an adult. Thus it makes her engagement with lead scientist Frank (Mark Duplass) a bit of a curiosity since he is an out-and-out atheist who wants to disprove there is an afterlife by bringing the recently deceased back to life. Why such disparate perspectives would collaborate on playing God is an intriguing question that, like so many others in The Lazarus Effect, is promptly ignored.
Using the vantage of a new undergrad named Ava (Sarah Bolger), who was brought in to videotape the transcendent moments of their experiments, the film swiftly and economically invents a found footage-ish exposition dump to lay out their plans, as well as introduce us to stoner biotech bad boy Clay (Evan Peters), and sweet computer guy Niko (Donald Glover), the latter of whom is carrying a barely concealed torch for Zoe. All of this is clumsily dropped in about five minutes, and we’re off to bringing a dead dog back to life, and then after a freak lab accident, Zoe as well. Carnage and death ensues since some form of Hell has come with her.
The most thought provoking ideas raised by The Lazarus Effect are why it is such a disappointing experience to sit through. The picture is touching the immortal question that plagues all mortal beings: what comes next (if anything)? The film pays plenty of lip service to the scientific theory that all near-death experiences with bright lights are just a chemical reaction to DMT flooding the body. However, like so much else in this film, it is only lip service.
Immediately following Zoe’s unnatural resurrection, the question is posed whether she actually went to Hell for a childhood mistake or whether before she died, she re-experienced a traumatic event due to DMT-created hallucinations. However, both concepts are equally disfavored by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater’s script, which dares to plunge into mankind’s greatest anxieties and even more audaciously finds in such rich ambiguity a generic slasher movie formula. It matters little if Zoe went to a Hell of her own making or a demonic one, because she’s now going to torment viewers with the most predictable series of “jumps” this side of a Wayans parody, resuscitating even the “she cut the phone lines” cliché.
Director David Gelb, whose previous feature was the delightful documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is off to a surprisingly bumpy start in narrative filmmaking here since he squanders the potential of a set-up that 1980s David Cronenberg would have a field day unpacking. Indeed, dropping the death motif for the same silly superpowered origin story of Lucy, this film also becomes about a heroine who is forced against her will to use “more than 10 percent of her brain,” which apparently equates to telekinesis and psychic mind-reading abilities. And visually that means an overreliance on closed circuit footage of Zoe going the full Carrie White on each of her former colleagues. Less than point and shoot, it’s hardly a step up from found footage in some sequences.
But in the role of those colleagues, the cast does fine with what they are given. Almost all of this repertory hails from a better television series (House, Community, The Tudors, American Horror Story), and they all at the very least inhabit their characters with more life than the reanimated dog prowling the halls. Donald Glover especially brings some sympathy to what on the page probably read like a throwaway part.
Still, this is Wilde’s show and she knows that she is the best thing in it. As she gets to embody both pre and post-death Zoe, not to mention many conflicting personalities after waking up, Wlide runs the gamut of almost several characters in a single film. The fun she has switching between guilt-ridden and wicked sinner is also the only kind of amusement you’ll have too. But by the third act, when she is playing with her food one victim at a time, we cannot deny her the joy of digging in.
The Lazarus Effect is a routine thriller about an atheist-led research team named after a story from The Gospel of John. The lack of awareness by any of them on this contradiction sums up the film in a nutshell as a surface level series of jolts with something far more sinister or profound hiding beneath the surface, waiting to be quickened to life.
***You can bring me back to life by following me @DCrowsNest.