“The Lazarus Effect starts out very strong, and maintains a good stride for the first hour with a very interesting topic explored in a very interesting way. But in the last half hour it manages to not only undo all the ideas it has created but to twist them into a simplified, easy to digest ending for us to consume. Surely this makes some comment on what the writers/directors think about their audience, but I might be reading a bit much into it. Definitely worth watching, a lot of fun on both a purely philosophical level as well as a good horror/suspense level, just expect to be disappointed by the turn it takes just past the one hour mark.” – 3.4/5 (genre)
The Lazarus Effect is a movie that I’ve watch before in a time when I wasn’t reviewing the movies I watched but still thinking about them and all their complexities or lack thereof. Honestly I think it was this movie that spurred me to finally start doing reviews on my blog, as up until this time and the following movie I watched, I was posting comments on Facebook and Twitter in short form and not doing real reviews. So I felt I should come back and do this movie justice (or homage maybe?) by reviewing it since it sparked this entire blog. I should give fair warning this is a long one compared even to my normal reviews.
For as short a run time as The Lazarus Effect has it is still filled with a great deal of depth and intricacies that could take a long time to parse out. This is what is so infuriating about this movie; it dives in head long into an extremely deep pool and tries to tackle ideas that humans have been batting around since we first began thinking in general, what happens to us after we die? If you don’t know, and I wouldn’t presume everyone would, Lazarus (see the Wiki for more details) was a man from the New Testament of The Bible who had died and after four days of being dead Jesus brought back to life. This is, in its entirety, the basis of the movie. So what makes me so upset by it? Well, the movie starts out with excellent discourse and ideas that really start to drive at the heart of the debate, and then somewhere along the way it decides its going to be a horror movie and jump into every trope filled pothole it can find. Just so frustrating, but we’ll get to that.
The story takes place almost exclusively in the basement of a research facility on the Berkeley campus, where a group of scientists (movie scientists are so fun to watch and listen to seeing as I’m a scientist as well) are working on what they have dubbed the “Lazarus Serum”. They give a wonderfully entertaining, though somewhat plausible explanation about what the serum is, though as we all know movie science rarely holds up. Two doctors, Zoe (Olivia Wilde) and Frank (Mark Duplass) lead up this group of four researchers. The other two members are Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters) who are from the best I can tell technicians assisting with the research. It isn’t revealed until a little bit later, though not too far in, that they’ve deviated from the original research grant funding and are performing unsanctioned experiments to bring back dead animals with the serum. They feel like they’ve made significant enough progress to bring in a student documentary maker Eva (Sarah Bolger), so that they can probably demonstrate the progress they’ve made and justify the work.
They test out the new serum on a dog, Rocky, that has been put down because of cataracts that made him completely blind. They’re successful at bringing him back, and though it isn’t explicitly stated that I noticed how long he had been dead it was implied it had been at least a day probably more. Rocky comes back confused and aggressive but quickly calms down and his cataracts and other wounds heal rapidly, an unexpected side effect. However, Rocky becomes lethargic and uninterested in anything including food or water and simply lies there staring at them.
This is where the bulk of the movie takes place, at least the part that is setting up the question of what happens to us after we die and what is happening to Rocky after he’s been brought back. There is a lot of great dialogue with sound ideas that address both the scientific, religious, and philosophical aspects and ramifications of death and life. I have to give the writing credit, I enjoyed watching a movie where a serious idea was being discussed and done so in a way that was not only credible but also entertaining to watch. Probably the most pertinent and important point was made by Zoe, when she questioned whether Rocky even wanted to come back, and that they had just taken him from wherever he was. Doggie heaven is mentioned (as Zoe is Catholic and so heaven was bound to come up) and here fiance Frank dismisses the whole idea like its irrelevant and Rocky is better off now.
I’d just like to take a brief aside to mention the amount of hubris one must have to completely brush off the notion that maybe something that was dead was happy being dead and was better off being alive, and owed that to them. The point Zoe brings up that Rocky was likely happier where he was is not only valid but seems likely to be true; he was gone, whether that was to somewhere else or to nowhere and dissipated into the ether or void or what have you, he was no longer a part of this world. And they snatched him back and forced him into a body he likely no longer wanted to be in. This is the strength of The Lazarus Effect, it forces you to look at these ideas and issues and makes you think about them, it doesn’t jump straight to its horror and gore but takes its time getting there and makes these ideas the forefront of the movie. I was so impressed with this the first time I watched it, and again this time, that it made the second viewing even more of a let down once we reached the ending. (I have no religious affiliation and do have my own views on this subject, but I won’t force them on you and let you reconcile them with the movie how you best see fit).
To avoid giving up too much of the story line a series of event transpire that causes the researches to be found out and lose all their research and funding because they deviated from the original grant. In a desperate bid to get on the record that they were the ones to make this discovery and not some giant industrial conglomerate they make one last ill-conceived attempt to repeat the process on another dog. But instead, because they were rushed and Zoe didn’t remove her engagement ring, she is electrocuted by the device during the procedure and dies. It was somewhat obvious, even if you managed to avoid all the ads and trailers, that this is where the movie was heading. Frank, unwilling to let her go, performs the procedure on Zoe with the help of the others and successfully brings her back to life.
This is when we move into the second phase discussing the physiological, psychological and philosophical ramifications of bringing someone back to life. Zoe is obviously not herself, she’s aware of it, the others are aware of it but again Frank brushes it off (that ego), but eventually even he is forced to face it. Zoe, while alive, had a recurring nightmare from her childhood where her apartment building caught fire, and the neighbors were trapped behind a door and because she didn’t open the door they died. The guilt haunted her for her entire life. After she comes back she tells Frank that she went back to that hallway as a little girl when she died and every day she lived it over and over, watching them die. Frank tells her she was only gone for an hour, and she says he doesn’t understand, she was there for years. This is a massive impact statement when we break it down.
She was gone (dead) for nearly an hour before they brought her back, a feat which I believe has been outdone by conventional medicine, I should really look up the longest someone has been dead before coming back. If you know, comment it below because it would seem I’m too lazy to do that right now. However, in that span of an hour for us, she lived years and years repeating the same event over and over every day and suffering the torment she experienced as a child fresh every time. She described it as being hell, reliving the worst day of her life over and over for, well forever. The fact that she was aware of time suggests that she was somewhere else physically, or in a new form that we don’t understand, and that time in that place moves at a different pace from our own. Maybe it was hell, maybe it was another universe, or maybe it was just the lobby to wherever she was supposed to go and she just couldn’t get the door open to get there because of the trauma. Regardless, her awareness of the passage of time indicates that this was not a fictional event that was fabricated by her dying brain (I know all kinds of arguments could be made, but I would like to point out that most things that take place in our minds are starkly devoid of time stamps or continuity), but a real physical place she existed. It changed her dramatically having lived that long in that moment.
This was a wonderful direction that the movie took, exploring in a new way the idea of life and death and the interim. Sadly this is where The Lazarus Effect slips on the side of the pool and hits its head. Instead of running with this ideology even further and exploring some real depth into the afterlife and what it means to come back they choose to go with the serum makes her brain evolve and gives her powers, which of course make her evil. And we dive into standard horror movie goodness.
That isn’t to say there isn’t some good horror moments to be had, in fact this movie does its tense and dramatic elements very well, even making me tense up a bit even though I knew what was coming. If it had never attempted to break into the philosophical debate and just stayed the course for a horror film I would be applauding the movie for its work, because it is intense and well done, but because it added this layer of depth to the first hour it raised the bar for itself, and then knocked that bar down trying to rise over it.
In the end there isn’t enough horror here for serious horror fans, and not quite enough philosophy for those interested in the other aspects of bringing someone back. There is some good suspense but it isn’t enough to save it, and the half-hearted attempt at The Ring style appeasement was just poorly done. Essentially the entire framework of the movie came crashing down in the last twenty minutes or so, giving a fun horror ride but a disappointing finish.
The acting was of course very good, with maybe the exception of Clay who I felt was a little over played, but I think that was more writing than the actor. He went where the script told him to and that just happened to be a slightly over the top person who hardly seemed stable enough to be working on a sensitive research project such as this for three years. Everyone else did a great job, and while I’m not particularly a fan of Olivia Wilde (I have nothing against her either), her portrayal of Zoe both before and after death were nicely done. She captured the confusion and fear of after death Zoe perfectly I think, and even gave a great performance as evil Zoe, even if that was my least favorite Zoe. The sort of love triangle between Niko, Zoe, and Frank seemed a little out of place, especially since it was merely there to prop up one scene that lasts about 30 seconds in the latter half of the movie. I think this could have been pulled out and nothing would have been lost at all.
This was a highly polished and shiny movie with some significant depth to it, like a brand new car with all the trimmings inside, but somewhere along the way someone just forgot to install the engine. Meaning it went nowhere in the end, giving us no real insight into what its thoughts on death and life are, or even something to make us think about long after the credits roll. Instead we get monster of the week who may or may not be Zoe, it’s hard to tell.
The ending was a complete disappointment even by horror movie standards. They did manage to create a good character out of Eva, who initially seemed less than important to the story, but we got nothing of any substancefrom the ending. All the build up, the great discussion, the nice horror/suspense aspects culminating in what, a psychic zombie army? Hmm, now that I think about that, that is kind of scary. Psychic zombies could be really, really bad for the environment.
The Lazarus Effect starts out very strong, and maintains a good stride for the first hour with a very interesting topic explored in a very interesting way. But in the last half hour it manages to not only undo all the ideas it has created but to twist them into a simplified, easy to digest ending for us to consume. Surely this makes some comment on what the writers/directors think about their audience, but I might be reading a bit much into it. Definitely worth watching, a lot of fun on both a purely philosophical level as well as a good horror/suspense level, just expect to be disappointed by the turn it takes just past the one hour mark.
Overall: 3.4/5 (genre)