Ah, death. Such a universal, timeless, perpetually fascinating subject. It doesn’t always make for uplifting or entertaining cinema (unlike the far more tired and overused subject of love), but I suspect that’s in large part because death is so final. It truly is the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns. As long as that holds true, I suspect that humanity will always be fascinated with the nature of death, what awaits us when we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, and whether it can or even should be controlled.
This curiosity is naturally reflected in our entertainment, from The Re-Animator to Frankenstein to the umpteen trillion stories about ghosts and zombies (though modern zombie fiction tends to dabble more often in social observations regarding consumerism, conformism, etc.). Stories about death and resurrection are as old as the art of storytelling itself, going clear back to Heracles, Orpheus, and all the other ancient mythical figures who ventured to the afterlife and back.
And now we have The Lazarus Effect, quite blatantly named for one of the oldest resurrection stories on record. It comes to us from David Gelb, who made his feature debut four years ago with a documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi (I missed out on that one, but I heard great things). The writers have virtually no resume to speak of, though Luke Dawson previously wrote a long-forgotten 2008 horror film called Shutter and Jeremy Slater is at least partially responsible for the script of the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. The cast stars Olivia Wilde, who still hasn’t really found a niche even though she’s shown a fair bit of talent in a lot of high-profile films. Then we have mumblecore champion Mark Duplass and Childish Gambino himself, Donald “Don’t Call Me Troy” Glover. Rounding out the cast is Evan Peters, last seen stealing X-Men: Days of Future Past as Quicksilver, alongside up-and-comer Sarah Bolger.
On paper, this looks like a lot of talent put together, though perhaps better suited for a comedy than a horror film. Yet the trailer showed great promise, in large part precisely because the cast was so talented and none of the actors looked like they belonged in this film.
I of course accepted the possibility that the film could suck, but I was not expecting a “14 percent Tomatometer” level of putrescence. How could such potential get so completely squandered? This is one of those times when I had to find out.
The premise begins with Frank and Zoe, respectively played by Duplass and Wilde. As you may have guessed already, Frank will be our mad scientist for the movie. Because he was named after Frankenstein. Duh. I’d also like to point out that Zoe is the one who gets brought back from the dead, and her name is derived from the Greek word for “life.” Cute.
Anyway, the two of them are work partners who are also romantically involved with each other. Their marriage was put on indefinite hold, however, when Zoe discovered some kind of organic compound that reacts with electricity to rebuild dead brain tissue. They begin animal trials with this so-called “Lazarus Formula,” with the goal of giving doctors more time to treat terminally ill patients.
Assisting them is Clay (Peters), who’s somehow a scientific prodigy even though he’s dumb enough to smoke in a laboratory. There’s also Nico (Glover), who still has a massive crush on Zoe even though she’s been engaged to Frank for upwards of three years. Rounding out the crew is Eva (Bolger), who gets brought on at the start of the movie to film the project. As to why they waited this long to get a documentary filmmaker or why they even need one in the first place, your guess is as good as mine.
Getting back to the Lazarus serum, the trials all fail until the team apparently cracks the code and revives a dog. But when Frank and Zoe bring the dog home with them, it quickly becomes obvious that something’s not right.
But wait. Back up. They took this dog home with them? They didn’t have someplace to keep the dog under constant observation, possibly with 24/7 camera surveillance? They put the dog out in the open, where any number of foreign bacteria or toxins could have adversely affected the results? Did these people even have a place to keep the animals they were hoping to revive? Well, since the dog is later kept in an ordinary kennel, it looks like that last answer at least is a negative.
It gets worse, of course. Someone raises plenty of religious and philosophical objections to the concept of playing God, and Frank can only spout nonsense about penicillin, Coca-Cola, and other accidental discoveries. So Big Pharma comes in to take all the group’s research away on Lazarus, and nobody has anything to say against it except that this is three years of Frank and Zoe’s life and they can’t take it away. So Frank, Zoe, and co. scrounge together enough equipment to break into their old lab and duplicate the experiment, which not only fails but kills Zoe by electrocution in the bargain. So Frank says “fuck it” and swaps out the test subject for Zoe, which means that we’re now on to human trials after a single animal trial that turned out to be dubious at best.
Seriously, folks, when the money-grubbing monolithic corporation comes out looking like the more sympathetic party in this scenario, something’s gone terribly wrong.
I realize that this is a horror film, which means that the characters are going to make dumb choices. I also realize that this is a movie about bringing people back from the dead, which means that a lot of suspending disbelief will be necessary. But this is supposed to be a film about brilliant scientific minds discussing existential matters of life, death, and the afterworld. And every time these characters open their mouths, it becomes plainly obvious that neither the filmmakers nor the characters were smart enough to make the premise work.
I can’t even begin to count all the times when characters are made to look like ignorant jerkwads just because they have the good sense to lampshade stupid ideas with rational arguments. I have no idea how often someone made a legitimate point only for someone (usually Frank) to wave it off with what amounts to a “yeah, whatever.”
The perfect example comes roughly 40 minutes in, when a newly-resurrected Zoe is put through an MRI scan only to show that her brain wave activity is way above normal. “You’ve heard that humans only use 10 percent of their brain?” asks one character. “I thought that was a myth,” replies another character. “The myth is that we don’t know what the other 90 percent does,” comes the rejoinder. Yet Zoe is apparently using more than 10 percent of her brain power right now, and that’s the only explanation we ever get for all the “weird shit” (their words, not mine, I swear to God) that happens throughout the movie.
So the film openly admits that the whole “10 percent” thing is a myth, and then uses it as the basis for Zoe’s new hellish powers anyway. With science this bad, how the hell am I supposed to take this film seriously on any kind of intellectual level?
But how is it as a horror movie? Sadly, not much better. We already know going into this movie that Zoe is going to be resurrected into the main antagonist, so all the jump scares in the first act are entirely useless. In fact, all the jump scares, lighting tricks, and musical stings throughout the movie are entirely useless. Which is a shame, because those are all the tools in this movie’s bag.
Remember, this was very clearly a PG-13 movie made on a shoestring budget (a mere $3.3 million, according to Wikipedia), which means that excessive blood and special effects were not an option. A better horror film would compensate for these shortcomings with psychological scares, but we’ve already seen how this movie is with intelligence.
The other alternative would be to deliver emotional shocks, but the movie falls short there as well because the characters all suck. Eva’s a prime example: She has no personality, Bolger doesn’t have the screen presence to make for a strong enough protagonist, and Eva turns into blubbering dead weight during the climax. There’s also Evan Peters, a character so aggressively annoying that I eagerly awaited his horrible death.
As for Nico? Ugh. I love Donald Glover, but the whole “jealous spurned lover still obsessed with someone who dumped him years ago” persona is not a card in his deck. After all, we’re talking about Childish Gambino here. It’s impossible to get anywhere in the rap game without a ton of confidence, and he shows way too much of that inner strength to make the character work. But then I remember that so much of his music is built on this sort of internal dilemma, and I have no idea what happened to him here.
Then there’s Mark Duplass. The guy has my undying loyalty ever since Safety Not Guaranteed, but his character here is so wretched that there’s no way Duplass could ever have salvaged Frank. Remember, Frank does a lot of idiotic things in this movie, but they all stem from either his desire to make a difference or his love for Zoe. Those stupid decisions in the heat of the moment can work, but only with an overpowering level of passion that Duplass just can’t deliver.
To wit: The moment when Zoe dies is easily the most pivotal scene in the whole movie. That should be the moment when we’re so moved to tears that we’re on board with Frank’s plan to throw all the rules out the window and bring her back. But Duplass’ chemistry with Wilde just wasn’t there, and the whole scene fell flat. That right there should have been the point when everyone called it a day and started over from scratch, because there was no possible way to salvage the film after that turning point into the second act.
To be clear, I’m laying the blame on Duplass and Gelb for failing to sell the relationship with Zoe, because Olivia Wilde is awesome in this. Her performance in the first act is okay, but she’s astounding to watch from the resurrection onward. With nothing but raw emotion, she completely sells the idea that something is terribly, horribly wrong with her. Wilde runs the gamut with her performance, going from terrified to manipulative to seductive to smug to monstrous. Zoe transforms so many times in this film and Wilde’s performance makes it captivating to watch.
But this doesn’t answer my biggest problem with the whole movie: Just what the hell is Zoe turning into, anyway?
No, really, we never get any explanation as to what’s going on. We don’t know if Zoe’s possessed or if she’s turning into something. We don’t know how she’s killing everyone off, what she’s doing, or why. Granted, any explanation would have smelled like bullshit, but that’s a hollow excuse when the audience is already willing to believe that the dead can be brought back to life. No, this was clearly meant to be a more ambiguous kind of threat, and there are so many reasons why that was a bad call to make.
To start with, the whole “examination of death” angle is completely shot. Without any idea of what Zoe brought back with her or why everyone dies as a result, the movie’s big thematic statement ultimately comes down to “we shouldn’t try to control death or random weird shit will happen for no reason.” So much thematic potential thrown right into the wood chipper.
Perhaps more importantly, it leaves our monster without any kind of motivation. If we have no idea what the revived Zoe wants, what she’s trying to do, or why, then we don’t have a handle on what’s at stake. In turn, this means that the whole film can only build to an anticlimax that leaves no sign of anything having been done or resolved. What does it mean if Zoe is stopped from doing whatever? What does it mean if everyone else dies? I’ve seen the movie, I know what happens, and I still don’t know the answer to either of those questions. That is not the mark of good storytelling, it’s the mark of 80 minutes wasted.
The Lazarus Effect is a complete mess, salvaged only by some good intentions, a few neat ideas, and Olivia Wilde’s performance. Though the brief runtime ensures that no one has to suffer through it for very long, it also means that the film could have been extended by 10 or 15 minutes that might have been used to explain what was going on. Without that, we’re only left with wretched characters, dead-end plot points, thematic ruminations that go nowhere, and a whole lotta wasted talent.
It’s too dumb to work as a horror film, never mind an intellectual examination of death and the conflict of science vs. religion. I can’t even bring myself to hate this movie so much as pity it. Definitely not recommended.