THE LAZARUS EFFECT is a regular background movie for me. I’ll turn it on a lot when I’m working on something else and just need something to listen to. I know it well enough to visualize the movie as it goes without actually having to watch it, and it’s slick enough to grab my attention now and then. But like LIGHTS OUT, it’s a slick horror mess that suffers from storytelling mistakes rather than talent.
I very much enjoy seeing Olivia Wilde in a role outside HOUSE, and I appreciated being introduced to Sarah Bolger, who reminds me so much of Alyson Hannigan–her face is different, but her expressions, gestures, and timing are eerily similar, though Bolger is obviously drawn to darker stories. The story didn’t do much for the usually charismatic Evan Peters or Donald Glover, though, and leading man Mark Duplass doesn’t quite manage to dig himself out of blandness. However, as I said, most of the sins of the movie have nothing to do with the actors, so although Wilde and Bolger elevate their roles, it’s likely the others can be forgiven for the script’s sins against them.
I keep watching this damn movie, even though it disappoints me every time. I think part of me thinks that, this time, the movie will finally progress the way it should and I’ll finally be satisfied. Or maybe I’m just trying to figure out how it could have been saved in another world.
LAZARUS EFFECT has a not-so-original premise, but it’s one that, with some work, might have yielded something truly terrifying. Certainly more terrifying than the rote scares the movie eventually succumbed to. The thing that gets me is that this movie really could have been better–it had room to stretch, it set up its unsettling questions…then forgot about those questions or didn’t follow them far enough down the rabbit hole. The cast was older, so it didn’t need to suffer the teen-bait fate. But it feels like the movie was supposed to go somewhere else, somewhere more interesting, and then some knucklehead pulled the plug on it like they did for the INVASION remake–maybe they thought Americans audiences wouldn’t get it or care. So we ended up with a moderately interesting first half and a hackneyed, lowest-common-denominator second half–although someone needs to give Wilde another reason to wear those demon eyes, because she rocks the hell out of them.
Let’s examine what LAZARUS EFFECT did well at the beginning and how the end failed it so hard.
The premise is this–two scientists and their research team are testing an experimental serum meant to kick-start neural activity after death. Reanimation, yes, but not in the zombie sense. The way Male Scientist presents it (seriously, I don’t care enough to look up his name), it’s more for recent deaths, to give hospitals longer to save someone. Basically, intended less for reanimation, more for extreme revival. Olivia Wilde, who plays Female Scientist, Zoe, works with her husband, and they are very much equal partners and equally brilliant. Sarah Bolger plays the newcomer comm student they hire to document their research and gives everyone a reason to explain what’s going on. They bring up one of the big questions when it comes to creating a serum that literally brings someone back from the dead: Namely, what happens after death?
Both scientists couch their theories in nutshell scientific terms, which I appreciated–interpreting the facts as we have them. Male Scientist believes there’s nothing afterward, that the near-death or bright light experiences by people who technically die are just euphoric hallucinations as the brain shuts down. Female Scientist, with a small gold cross hanging around her neck, hypothesizes that these hallucinations are part of the process of crossing over, that nothing ever really goes away–which bears with the first law of thermodynamics, conservation of energy, and so on. Both are valid theories (colloquial meaning of theory here) on the subject of existence after death, but Female Scientist rightly emphasizes that we just don’t know.
Then one of their experiments works, and they successfully bring a dog back to life, its cataracts disappearing but the serum not metabolizing out of his system the way it should. Instead, it keeps creating new neural connections, or something of that nature. And he’s exhibiting odd behavior, which brings up the second important question–What happens when you bring something back? (Haven’t any of these people watched BUFFY?) What are the consequences for the subject and what does that mean for the rest of us?
To summarize, here are the questions at stake: Is there life after death? And either way, what happens when you bring the dead back from wherever they’ve been?
As shown in the trailers, Zoe dies through human error, and she’s brought back, because dogs can’t discuss the philosophical ramifications of reanimation.
Where things begin to go off the rails is when she starts manifesting psychokinetic and telepathic abilities. In itself, this isn’t a problem (although that damned 10-percent-of-the-brain myth showed up and annoyed the crap out of me, because these scientists should fucking know better). It became a problem when that became the focus of the second half, eventually to the point of senselessness.
Let me break it down [HERE THERE BE SPOILERS – you can pretty much glean everything from the trailer, though]:
Between the moment of Zoe’s death and her resurrection, she experienced the worst thing she’s ever done on an endless loop for years. Set against her beliefs, it’s clear she believed she was in hell, forced to relive her greatest sin in spite of her religion telling her she’s supposed to be forgiven, that she’s done everything she needed to do. Now, we’re never told whether she was actually in hell or whether, in her brain’s last moments, she experienced time dilation, like in a dream, and perceived years of self-created hell in a matter of moments. This is not a question that needs to be resolved, but I would have appreciated it being, I don’t know, addressed? Because the implications are so much scarier than Resurrection!Carrie.
And again, Resurrection!Carrie itself isn’t a problem in and of itself, but it just kind of…happened. How did this calm, rational, kind scientist end up terrorizing and slaughtering everyone she knows? She’s got power. What’s the point of the killing? Even her feeling like she won’t have any spiritual consequences doesn’t explain it. I think if they’d wanted her power to terrorize everyone, they could have gone the post-traumatic stress route, where her powers extend from panic, distress, nightmares, fears, furies. What happens when a woman is tortured either in real hell or the hell she created for what she perceived as years?
Another idea that they teased but never really did anything with, if she were really in hell, did resurrection bring something back with her? I think giving Wilde’s character more motivation as a villain would have gone a long way toward improving the movie. And in general, going the “weird fiction” route might have done more justice to the question of heaven, hell, or nothing at all–because it’s often these challenges to conventional belief systems, including atheism, that are the most disturbing. Going “demonic hitchhiker” might have been interesting as well.
But we’ll never know, because every time I watch it, the movie still ends the same.