Movie review: The Lazarus Effect
Raising the dead gets tired in hipster Frankenstein story as Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass play mad scientists looking to overcome the fundamental rules of nature
The Lazarus Effect
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Donald Glover, Sarah Bolger
Directed by: David Gelb
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
Endings are always tough to swallow, but in the shallow breaths of sweaty denial comes an undeniable surge of imaginative power: An irrational belief that somehow, some way, the inevitable can be overcome.
It’s a fascinating surrender that finally forces us to question the limits of reason and logic as the axes of reality, which in turn allows a platoon of formless, shadowy, and potentially terrifying bogeymen to slide under the door and bathe us in cold sweat.
The Lazarus Effect makes full use of the brain’s revolving door between empirical science and pure imagination by fusing the two worlds together in the grand tradition of Frankenstein.
Meet Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde), two researchers looking into the degradation of neural networks in coma patients. From the moment this mid-budget horror movie begins, we’re in the lab, standing over their shoulders as they attempt to reanimate dead flesh.
First, it’s a dead pig. Then, it’s a dog. The next logical step is human beings, but what makes Frank and Zoe different from your generic Dr. Frankenstein archetype is their emotional accessibility.
Young, attractive and fully aware of every cultural and spiritual taboo that comes attached to their field of study, Frank and Zoe don’t smell of ‘mad scientist’ or suggest zombie apocalypse.
If anything, Duplass, the indie writer and producer who starred in such winning oddball efforts as Humpday, Safety Not Guaranteed and The One I Love leverages all of his inherent ‘nice guy’ energy to bring an almost laid-back feel to the denouement.
Similarly, Olivia Wilde uses her stunning looks as well as her slightly badass presence to create a compellingly sly mixture of smart tomboy and committed scientist. She lends the movie a natural focal point because she’s the one who wrestles with the larger implications of the work – especially once it proves successful.
In the first act, we watch the team bring an old dog back to life. Then, as memories of Pet Sematary and Cujo float through the air, often landing in the script itself through specific references, we spend the second act waiting for the bad stuff to happen.
After all, the team is playing God with the natural order of things, and we all know there are dire consequences attached to tinkering with the Almighty’s mysterious clockwork. Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater’s script gives us a brief overview of the myriad theories about death, from the purely scientific view that our brains are flooded with a natural hallucinogen that makes us see the white light as our neural networks shutdown for good, to the religious understanding of Heaven and Hell as the place where we spend the rest of eternity either paying for past sins, or cashing in on good deeds.
Zoe is a scientist, but she’s cluttered by religious ideas. More urgently, she’s concerned about the dog: He doesn’t seem interested in food. He doesn’t want to play with a ball. He’s not doing anything all that ‘doggy-like,’ which prompts Zoe to wonder “did we pull him out of doggie heaven?”
By the time director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) explains how the dog’s brain is running on overdrive, we’ve already heard one of the researchers say “He could go all Cujo on us…” But it’s just a device.
As we wait for the dog to pull apart the characters limb by limb, a whole new enemy appears in the form of Big Pharma. The university administration allowed a rival company to seize all the intellectual property and shut down the lab. With nothing to show for their work, the team decides for one last resurrection, but it doesn’t go as planned.
Without spoiling an already predictable plot, it’s safe to say Gelb follows the prescribed genre plan in the final act: Characters fall like dominos with increasingly grisly thumps. Yet, to his credit, he doesn’t revel in the gore or shock value of each demise. Smartly, he opts for the more cerebral approach and lets our imagination create the horror.
Thanks to Duplass’s ‘regular guy’ appeal and Wilde’s ability to play the girl-next-door with the same aplomb as possessed siren, The Lazarus Effect proves believable enough to be entertaining but a little too bland to leave much of a scar.
THE EX-PRESS, March 15, 2015