The Lazarus Effect David Gelb
Published Feb 26, 2015One of the only things going for the heavily recycled thriller, The Lazarus Effect, is an element of surprise. Though it's obvious from the premise — wherein a group of researchers develop a serum that reanimates the dead — that a human will be brought back to life, the audience shouldn't necessarily know which human will die or when. Unfortunately, the trailer for the film and even the studio-issued synopsis states up front which character dies and details just what the serum ultimately does to them.
Even worse is that this disappointing spoiler isn't ultimately what makes The Lazarus Effect such an astonishing failure. Despite its inspired casting — Mark Duplass as Frank, the ambitious, agnostic leader; Olivia Wilde as Zoe, a Scientist with a bit of faith; Donald Glover as Niko, the voice of reason; Evan Peters as Clay, the techy goofball; and Sarah Bolger as Eva, the outsider and documentarian — this abrupt and strangely utilitarian hybrid of Lucy, The Hollow Man, Flatliners, A Nightmare on Elm Street and, woefully, Prom Night II never works in any capacity.
Most of this stems from David Gelb's (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) presentation of a very conventional script. Having demonstrated an aptitude for constructing a functional, compelling story with his far superior documentary feature debut, Gelb should theoretically have an understanding of audience engagement and how to draw viewers into an isolated world. And while Lazarus all makes sense and progresses in an exceedingly practical and logical manner (the logistics of the plot are another story), there's never a single moment for the film to take a breath.
Every scene and sequence is boiled down to its basic vitality; every line of dialogue is pointed and rushed out and every shot has a specific, plot-driving purpose. Though this should conceivably aid in creating a propulsive pace to the story, pushing us through the lengthy setup before a lead scientist dies and comes back to life as a telepathic psycho, it winds up killing all possible tension and all character development, leaving the film with absolutely no tone. Duplass and Wilde, in particular, try to give their characters a bit of meat — Duplass is rigidly scientific to the point of psychosis and Wilde believes that science (specifically the synaptic rationale for the "white light" at the point of death) is a form of divinity — but there's no opportunity for them to react or inhabit any scene or environment they're in.
This leaves the latter half of the film, which plays as a generic slasher, completely devoid of scares or audience emotional investment. Since everyone on screen is just a flat archetype, we really don't care if they live or die. And what's worse is that the script ultimately demands our investment in these characters and a comprehensive understanding of Zoe's emotional framework and childhood baggage in order to succeed.
Even if The Lazarus Effect had been directed by someone that understood tone and pacing, it wouldn't have been a great movie — there's a lot of build-up for a very milquetoast climax — but it could have passed as moderately entertaining, albeit glib, ontological exploration. In order to truly succeed, it would need a lot of reworking and metaphysical thought. And even then, it would probably be served better by a television or miniseries format.