I feel kind of stupid. I really do. I had so many hopes for The Lazarus Effect (which, I will warn in advance, I keep accidentally calling “The Lazarus Project” sometimes so forgive me if I mix it up a few times in this review). Its trashy allure of its concept, the minimal production value that implies indie filmmaker ingenuity, especially how it seemed to attract a way too talented cast than such a lowbrow concept should have attracted – You do not expect Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Donald Glover, Sarah Bolger, and Evan Peters (ok, maybe those last two but you’d feel they’d have something to do).
And yet here I was, sitting at the end of the credits of The Lazarus Effect, still in the damn theater. And I should have expected the empty half-assed fuckery that I have witnessed. It’s not an outright rarity for me to deem some movies a waste of time, but that is absolutely what The Lazarus Effect felt like the entire way through. A waste of talent for a movie with a primary cast of five and – maybe if we’re generous – supporting of two, of money for a movie that was made out of 3 million (and, in the cruel reality of economics, the movie has made its profit), of resources for a movie that largely has one major set, and – directly to me – of time. Though I do weep for those two months Childish Gambino spent on set that could have been spent on a new album.
Frank (Duplass) and Zoe (Wilde) are two of the lead researchers in their own personal medical project “Lazarus”. They also happen to be engaged, although the length of that engagement is indeterminate and dependent on how long it takes them to complete a prototype of the serum that is the focus of “Lazarus” – ideally intended to allow coma patients further window time to be rescued by their doctors. They also happen to be almost entirely unbelievable as a fucking couple, since the script by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater wants to shoehorn some Faith vs. Reason tangent that does absolutely nothing except drive a wedge into the dead-air chemistry between Wilde and Duplass. The dialogue has to remind us that they are engaged and it doesn’t bother half as much as it does to remind us that Zoe’s so Catholic she might have been stolen from the set of Mean Streets. That Religion vs. Hard Science “debate” that the movie has going about it is also the first of many tangents in the film I will mention that goes absolutely positively fucking nowhere. As the movie’s story seems to be an untangled ball of yarn that is still trying to convince itself to fit together.
Working with them is the crass and lazy Clay (Peters) and the so-obviously-having-a-crush-on-Zoe Niko (Glover), who are characters who literally only fit those particular descriptions and have no other dimensions to them as people, but that’s not quite as bad as the newcomer to the group – undergraduate Eva (Bolger), hired to film their experiments and damn well not to have any sort of personality within the film whatsoever. Anyway, what Eva ends up capturing for the crew is that the serum ends up successfully bringing back to life deceased subjects rather than prolonging the coma of a dying patient – riffing off of Re-Animator – and bringing the deceased back enforce as physical performance – riffing off of Lucy and Limitless and so many other “hah what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger than you ought to be” movies.
But then suddenly a thankless cameo by Ray Wise informs the audience that a local corporation has waved their dollar bills and contracts to the university to legally take away all of our five subjects’ work and then shut them away from the university outright (tangent that goes nowhere #2). Obviously that doesn’t play for our plucky blank slate “heroes” so they break into the lab one last time to capture their success and FUCKING ZOE IS OBVIOUSLY NOT WEARING GLOVES OR ANY PROTECTIVE GEAR IN THE MOST UNBELIEVABLE DISREGARD OF MOVIE LAB ETIQUETTE AND FUCKING DIES BECAUSE SHE DESERVES IT.
Upon the unfortunate mishap, Frank remembers he’s supposedly in love with Zoe and decides to put her through the Lazarus serum. It works and brings her back to life but it also makes her heightened mental abilities turn out to be a bit more dangerous to our group and brings out a bit too much mental instability that the script implies was always inside of her.
Anyway, from here on, the movie goes wild on itself as a plot. It’s basically “we’re boxed in with a supernatural killer. Let’s try to prolong this to avoid less than 60 minutes of screentime by making no sense and introducing more tangents that get addressed once and ends up never again elaborated on.” We’ve got teases of childhood trauma, we’ve got a timeclock scenario that no longer matters the moment Zoe comes back to life, we’ve got the possibility of Hell being a factor, and not one of those gets as much time devoted to it than the movie devotes to scare tactics that imply two things – that the movie is so “student film” it doesn’t know how to cover its seams than just having the lights not work when it is convenient and that the movie’s idea of “scary” is haunted house tactics of flashing imagery and not even committing to making such flashing imagery come off as perilous to the characters themselves. One such moment is when the current survivors watch the lights work only to witness body bags surrounding them… and immediately one of them rationalizes like a buzzkill “they’re not alive”. Before we even get a chance to register what kind of bullshit is this, the movie tosses it aside for the next half-baked concept.
And then to top it off and toss it into “I cannot believe I wasted 83 minutes in this dark ass room watching incoherent shit”, the movie ends in the most inexplicable ending that seems think of itself as a twist as there is nothing at all suspenseful about what it reveals and it denies us any motivations or reason to believe that the final moments have any actual anchor in events either past or future. It’s such a loose thread, such an afterthought of a moment that, I shit you the fuck not, I sat my ass in the theater all the way through the credits expecting… no, hoping… no, PRAYING there was something that would tie that ending back to the actual circumstances that we were meant to believe kicked off the film in the first place.
Nothing. Just emptiness. Probably just as the actors felt when they tried to find something in their characters to build upon. Probably just as the set designer must have felt when director David Gelb told him to just make the most sterile cliche lab set you could make and do nothing. Probably just as the editor probably felt having to sift and sieve through the footage to create something that would add up to all its threads.
I’ll tell you, I felt dead after watching The Lazarus Effect and it took a hell of a lot of movie soda to give me the energy to walk sadly back to my car again. “It could have been so much better” doesn’t cut it as a declaration for my disappointment. And I should have known.