Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2015

The Lazarus Effect

It's alive?

'The Lazarus Effect' is a silly, cobbled-together mess

The Lazarus Effect
Relativity Studios
Director: David Gelb
Screenplay: Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sarah Bolger, Donald Glover, Evan Peters, Amy Aquino and Ray Wise
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 23 minutes
February 27, 2015
(out of four)

Somewhere in a vault there is a version of the actual The Lazarus Effect, or the movie The Lazarus Effect was intended to be. It's surely not whole, merely scattered amongst various reels and digital files, but it's in there somewhere. And while I'm not sure it's any good, I at least wish I'd seen it instead of the release version, which is a mangled husk of an idea that seems almost desperate to get things over with as quickly as possible.

When the film finally gets into the teeth of its story, it proceeds to plow through it, jumping over huge sections of plot, ignoring underlying ideas, discarding subplots. Unless the filmmakers moved forward with a half-completed screenplay, there was some serious butchering done in the editing room. I'd call the editing "judicious" if it weren't so messy, and if every scene change didn't make it feel like we skipped over three other scenes. The final product is 83 minutes long, and feels shorter ... but not the good kind of feeling shorter, where the time just flies by. The bad kind, where it feels like we've been shortchanged.

Taking material mined previously by the likes of Lovecraft, King and (most obviously) Shelley, The Lazarus Effect starts with the idea of reanimation and awkwardly shifts into psychodrama territory, making the whole movie feel like little more than a cheap psychological puzzle. Even if the transition is meant to be jarring (and I'm not sure it is), the haphazard editing accentuates it to the point of nonsense. By the third act, the film occupies a sort of dream space, but it mostly abandons the sci-fi concerns (technological, biological and ethical) in favor of something more pat and digestible, and more along the lines of what you'd expect to see in a run-of-the-mill studio horror film than the more cerebral film screaming to be let out.

If anything, it feels like the first half should have been the one the filmmakers rushed through, rather than the second. Because the whole thing starts as a slow (if clunky) burn, but once it gets to its inevitable, and most important, plot point, it speeds toward the ending for some reason. But that plot point is the meat of the film, and it's been trimmed and drained of all its flavor. When we see betrothed scientific researchers Zoe (Olivia Wilde) and Frank (Mark Duplass, who's, um, a totally convincing scientist) testing out a serum that will bring a dead animal back to life, we know it's only a matter of time before it's a human on the examining table. Yet we spend a decent amount of time in the lab, superficially getting to know the characters - including lab assistants Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters), along with the team's for-hire videographer, Eva (Sarah Bolger) - while they test out the serum (which they originally intended just as a way to sustain neural activity in coma patients), first on a pig (to no avail) and then on a dog.

And once the dog miraculously comes back to life, we spend even more time with the team as they try to diagnose exactly what's gone wrong with the experiment. Namely, that the dog seems much more lethargic than before, and that the serum itself - intended to dissipate from the body after 48 hours - has made seemingly permanent residence in the dog's brain. Neural activity hasn't just been rejuvenated - it's accelerating. And suddenly the dog starts to get aggressive.

We're halfway through the film and we still haven't even gotten to the real story yet. The catalyst for that is the university shutting the experiment down - on both legal and bioethical grounds, having discovered Zoe and Frank's apparent attempt to play God. In truth, the organization funding the team's research grant has been bought out by a pharmaceutical conglomerate that intends to take the serum and all its accompanying research for itself.

And so, in a panicked attempt to recreate and film their discovery, the gang breaks into the lab, things go awry, and Zoe ends up electrocuted, leading fiancee Frank to try the serum on her. And so, finally! We've gotten to it. (And look, I'm all for a slow build-up ... but in an 83-minute movie, maybe don't wait until halfway through to actually get to the point.)

The most interesting thing from here on out is Zoe's gradual discovery of what has happened to her, and what she's becoming - and Wilde does a nice job selling it. There's an element of body horror in play here - darkened fingertips, blackened eyes, infected veins - that director David Gelb promptly glosses over.

The plot elements, both early on and post-reanimation, are almost incidental to the ideas generated therefrom, and yet none of them are very well explored. Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater's script - with respect to the fact that it could have been severely distorted by the way the film was spliced together - seems more intent on putting the puzzle pieces of a mystery together than delving into the primal, corporeal components. It's a ruinous miscalculation that ultimately trivializes everything that may have been thought-provoking.

As the movie keeps getting stuck in plot mode, its plotting and characterizations remain perfunctory. Eva the videographer, for example, is a sort of perpetual stand-in for various plot requirements, relevant when - and only when - the screenplay needs someone to fill a specific, temporary purpose. A red herring in one scene, a witness in another, a convenient loophole in this scene, a vessel in the next. In every other scene she could disappear and no one would notice.

It would be easy to forgive such contrivance if The Lazarus Effect worked on a more gut level, but it doesn't. This is a film whose subject matter, by its very nature, is a visceral and existential terror, and it's treated as a prosaic piece of psychohorror.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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