The Lazarus Effect feels like it should be a cheap horror film. It is the end of February, there hasn't been much of a marketing scheme and it tops out at a brisk hour and twenty-three minutes. With those factors taken into consideration I wondered what might have drawn the likes of talent such as Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass to the project not to mention a supporting cast that includes Evan Peters and Donald Glover. There had to be a little something more to this if not for names of this stature to get involved, but for the fact these names usually represent some kind of interesting tendencies. Duplass especially as not only does the guy star in an outright hilarious sitcom, but has written, directed and starred in more than a handful of very indie-feeling films that generally receive good reviews. So, what was it about this very obvious-looking genre film that made it acceptable for each of these actors to dip out of their known niche and into something that might otherwise come off a little second-rate? Well, for starters there is the fact it comes to us courtesy of director David Gelb who made Jiro Dreams of Sushi which was a rather acclaimed documentary four years ago and was co-penned by Jeremy Slater who was picked up to write the Fantastic Four re-boot for Josh Trank. Coming at the film from this more optimistic perspective one can see early on what the attraction might have been for the actors. Most who come to the art form of acting likely have more consistent existential crises than the majority of us and The Lazarus Effect gets the point across fairly quickly that it wants to mess around with some big questions whether it is ready for the big answers or not. There is discussion about the after-life, metaphoric implications of what exists after we die might mean as represented by the lives we lead as well as good ol' talk about the precautions of playing God in a laboratory. The good is there is plenty of interesting topics to latch onto here, the bad is that the film doesn't give itself room to breathe and really explore any of its topics much less focus on a main thought.

Gelb immediately introduces us to a group of researchers led by Frank (Duplass) and his fiancé Zoe (Wilde) who've essentially put their lives on hold in the name of science and research after receiving a grant for their experiments and potential discoveries. Frank reminds us time and time again that science is about going where the research leads you and strangely enough Frank and Zoe come across what might be the ability to bring the dead back to life. After a successful, yet unsanctioned, trial on a newly deceased canine, the team that also includes Glover's Niko and Peters Clay monitor the ongoing brain activity of the resuscitated animal that doesn't seem in line with expectations giving their discovery all the more reason to be kept out of the public eye. Naturally, the university funding the project mysteriously learns of these unsanctioned experiments and the project is unexpectedly shut down. Fingers are initially pointed at Eva (Sarah Bolger), a fellow student at the university who has been documenting the progress of the scientific trials. This all serves purely as a macguffin for the film to dive into insanity as a whole corporation takeover subplot is forgotten as soon as it is introduced. In a last ditch effort to save the work they've put in over the last four years of their life Frank, Zoe and their team take matters into their own hands by launching a rogue attempt to recreate their experiment where things will unavoidably go terribly wrong.

From left: Evan Peters, Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover and Sarah Bolger in The Lazarus Effect.
Beyond some interesting and inventive shot compositions late in the film and rather dark and dense overall aesthetic Gelb doesn't really add much to what should have been a film overloaded with atmosphere. Instead, he relies on the jump scare one too many times and even falls into an age old cliche concerning the lone African-American character (though technically I guess he would be classified as the second to depart). From these and other easy potshots at a film that feels more forced to be a horror than one that was inherently intended to be one could take away that it's just not very good and a rather standard exercise in the ever-worsening genre of quick and cheap thrillers. The thing is, there is clearly a film here that wasn't intended to strictly operate under the "scary movie" guise, but instead one that simply focused around its concepts and points of discussion rather than its success depending on how many times it made you jump or scream. Whereas Duplass represents the typical scientific atheist he is juxtaposed by Wilde's character who was raised Catholic and can't help but hope all that might come after death cannot be reduced to a single, simple explanation. While Frank views Zoe as a credible and respected scientist he finds it hard to buy into the idea of a great big God hovering over and puppeteering his life. While we've seen these conflicts come up in any film dealing with characters with their own God complexes and those who believe in a greater power this film has the advantage of hitting on the point of appealing to the emotions that there has to be something greater than man-made anecdotes that sustain our mind and spirit. Medicine is largely looked to for sustaining our physical body, but somewhere deep down I have to believe the majority of us see the body simply as a shell while there has to be bigger meaning to the thoughts, ideas and possibilities our mind is capable of.

The questions of how hard life might be to live if you knew what came next or even more distressing, what didn't are what propel The Lazarus Effect forward from the beginning. Unfortunately, while this is certainly nothing short of an interesting idea and concept rich with possibilities to explore the film does nothing to push the exploration of these thoughts forward, but instead counters with arguments like, "There's a reason evolution happens slowly." This of course could lead down another interesting path as the after-effects of Frank and Zoe's failed experiments are something akin to what we saw in Lucy last summer, but instead the film heads down a path of dealing with these repercussions in a way that doesn't garner more questions, but rather simple scares and a monstrous wrath we've seen too many times before. The most interesting part of the film comes throughout as you wonder how they might come to a conclusion so quickly that is both interesting and satisfying, but the bummer is that while there is so much potential to do more what we eventually get is basically a precursor to the zombie apocalypse. This is largely unfortunate because for much of the running time you're invested in the story and the possibilities of where things could go and what discussion might be had not to mention it's led by two rather strong-willed female characters. Performances aside and conventions forgiven this is a serviceable enough little film that does what it's intended to do on a competent level, but could have done what it seems to have wanted to do were it given a little more time and a little more enthusiasm.


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