While I was watching The Lazarus Effect, I had a rough idea of what I was watching from recalling the trailers, but my perception of the movie was coloured by other movies, specifically Event Horizon. If you’ve seen both movies, you might think I’m crazy – but I didn’t say it was a fair comparison! Part of me was hoping it would be thematically similar to Event Horizon – a flawed horror movie, but one of my favourites – while the other part of me just hoped it wouldn’t suck.
I quite liked the premise, and the pacing in the first act is pretty good. I liked the quick introductions to all of the main characters, and for this kind of movie it’s a decent cast of B and C listers: Mark Duplass (Creep), American Horror Story’s Evan Peters, Donald Glover, who was great in The Martian, Sarah Bolger, and Olivia Wilde (House, Cowboys and Aliens). And they’re mostly decent here too – it’s a shame that the movie collapses completely in the second half.
During the early parts of the movie, I was actually drawn in quite a bit. I happen to like plots that feature a team working on something – can’t say why, it’s just a comfortable trope for me. And I enjoyed that the team was working on something that was intended to have a short term medical benefit too. Another trope I like is science gone wrong – which is weird, because I’m pro science all the way and can’t abide pseudoscience – going one step further, I have much hate for “things man was not meant to know” storylines. In earlier movies, that line, or variations of, was actually said. In movies these days it’s not so much said as it is implied whenever a new discovery gets destroyed at the end of the movie so that nobody else can use it. That’s kind of stupid when you think about it, because once something’s discovered it isn’t long before it’s revealed that others are working on the same theories, sometimes not aware others are doing it too – destroying the machine, burning the ancient book, they’re all temporary measures, but they often form a climactic “this stops here” moment. It shows a primitive fear of science, fear of progress, a need for things to stay the same, unchanging forever. In the real world, these fears are expressed as illogical distrust of vaccines, GMO foods, nuclear power, etc, so these movies where the thing that goes wrong – it must be destroyed. Man was never meant to know, get it?
At least in The Lazarus Effect, when the science goes wrong, there’s no question of destroying it – in fact, like Brainstorm (1982), and The Quatermass Xperiment the idea is to keep using it – y’know, just like actual science: if it doesn’t succeed, keep trying until it does. In The Lazarus Effect, the science is an experimental method to extend the life of patients who would otherwise die – to give them a little more time on the operating table. A noble goal, which is another reason it appealed to me: true horror happens when bad things happen to good people – not just people who are the in wrong place at the wrong time. All of the team members here are good people working toward that single altruistic goal, so when things go bad for them, that resonates. We’ve all wondered why innocents seem to get the short end of the stick; it rightfully infuriates, because that could be us!
Unfortunately, this is a movie that isn’t up to the appealing premise. Around the midpoint, the co-lead scientist Zoe, played by Olivia Wilde, dies, and the experimental process is used to revive her. If you’ve seen the poster, you know that it turns out to be a bad idea. It’s not really a predictable plot point, since that development is, in fact, what the movie is about. The trouble is, the movie fails badly after this, mostly because Jeremy Slater (who wrote an early draft of 2015’s Fantastic Four) and Luke Dawson don’t appear to know how to adequately develop the plot. I mentioned Event Horizon, because the thrust of that plot is that a spaceship has passed through a black hole and appears to have gone, and returned from, Hell, bringing with it a dark malevolence. In The Lazarus Effect, Zoe is brought back from the dead, and even claims to have been in hell for years in the few minutes she was dead in the real world. It’s a good idea, but the new Zoe is really badly written. Full black sclera contacts are pretty much what passes for character development, and man, you get to see them all the time. Coming back from Hell apparently just sucks all the character out of you, and replaces you with an evil that’s just mostly dull and boring. The kills are surprisingly weak too. One person gets crushed in a metal cabinet, but instead of the cabinet being crushed into the size of a bucket, it just gets kinda crushed. Another character is made to swallow a small object and chokes to death. It’s all very weak. There are lots of flickering fluorescents, characters talking in the dark, and the one big reveal about Zoe could have been handled masterfully, but Dawson and Slater just completely drop the ball on it. During that particular scene there is some terrible CGI layered on top of Evil-Zoe simply grimacing with an outstretched hand. The second half is an absolute failure of writing, which is a shame because it could have been handled much more effectively. You don’t really at any time understand what Evil-Zoe’s actual motivation is for any of what she does, and her final act in the movie is even more of a head scratcher. Was it meant to mean something? I didn’t see the point of it, but the movie didn’t really build towards any specific kind of climax either.
This is a disappointing movie that turns a semi-decent sci-fi horror premise into a badly written piece of hackwork that ends up just being a waste of time. Another reason I watched it is that the movie is only 80 minutes or so long. Normally I’d say that a regular 90-120 minute running time could have fleshed out the story and characters to greater effect, but to paraphrase Blake in Glengarry Glenn Ross, Dawson and Slater could have gotten the extra time, but they wouldn’t have known what to do with it.