It’s always a shame when a good science fiction story gives in to its genre trappings; or worse, when it gives in to the plot device of an entirely different film. The Lazarus Effect begins as a modern spin on Frankenstein, with its science grounded in something resembling reality and a solid cast that knows how to sell the script’s clunkier jargon. An hour or so into the film, it seems like it might actually stick the landing. Then, as with any story about Man trying to play God, things start going wrong. Disastrously wrong, in fact. Taken on its own, the third act of The Lazarus Effect could be a frontrunner for Worst Film of the Year.
As the film opens, we find scientist couple Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) testing a serum intended to revive dead patients on the operating table. Not only does the serum work on a dead dog named Rocky, it brings him back in seemingly perfect health. When the university threatens to shut down their lab for playing God with their test subjects, Frank and Zoe enlist lab assistants Clay (Evan Peters) and Nico (Donald Glover), and documentarian Eva (Sarah Bolger) to help them prove their procedure works. A freak accident leaves Zoe dead, and Frank has no choice but to use the serum to bring her back. Zoe wakes up, but it soon becomes apparent that something is very wrong with her. Strange things start to happen. Bad things. Evil things.
The film’s first act is promising enough. The Frankenstein connections are a little on the nose (the main character’s name is Frank, for God’s sake), but the science is at least handled smartly. Early on, Frank explains the rationale behind his experiments: Some of science’s greatest breakthroughs only happened because of people following up on unexpected results. He was supposed to be working on new treatments for coma patients, but instead discovered his serum could revive dead tissue. This almost seems like the film making excuses for itself. “It’s okay for our story to follow completely illogical tangents seemingly at random! That’s how science works! That’s how they discovered penicillin!”
The first sign that things might take a turn for the worse comes early, when Nico sneaks up on Zoe and the film delivers a jump scare that could be heard from space. That’s the sort of film The Lazarus Effect is. So unsure is director David Gelb of his ability to creep out the audience that he constantly resorts to jump scares, cuts to black, flickering lights and nonsensical leaps in logic to elicit scares. (Gelb’s most recent film was the wonderfully textured documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, if you can believe it.)
As the title would suggest, The Lazarus Effect deals with some deep philosophical questions. What happens after we die? Is there an afterlife? If there is an afterlife, is it right to bring someone back from it? The film only touches on these topics for a moment, though, as attempting to answer any of them in a concrete fashion would surely make the film fall flat on its face. Instead, it steps back from dealing with things scientifically and goes full tilt into slasher territory. This, naturally, is when the film actually does fall flat on its face.
After Zoe wakes up, they scan her brain and discover that she’s developing Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy disease. Nico even drags out the old chestnut that most people only use ten percent of their brains, but the serum is causing hers to go into overdrive. Zoe starts moving objects telepathically, reading the other team members’ minds, and occasionally dragging them into her own subconscious. Or maybe it’s actually Hell. After returning from the dead, Zoe claims that Hell is nothing more than your worst memory replayed for eternity. Hers, we discover, is about being trapped in a burning building as a small child. The idea that our subconscious shapes the way we experience the afterlife is a fascinating concept, and had it been developed further, could have been the densely cerebral finale this film deserves. Instead, what we get plays more like an excuse for the film to introduce colors other than blue and green.
By the end, Zoe becomes more Freddy Krueger than Lucy, which is such a strange turn that it essentially renders the entire first hour irrelevant. There’s a good science fiction story at the heart of The Lazarus Effect. Why the writers felt the need to jettison that in favor of a slasher film with no grasp of the material’s philosophical underpinning is a mystery. Maybe in thirty years, someone will dig this film up and give it the remake it deserves. Or maybe they’ll just remake Re-Animator again instead.Liked This? Share It!