Even then that might have all been forgivable in a picture that had some general idea of what it takes to rouse scares or inspire psychological wonder, but the movie plays like an excursion through the miseries of aspiring filmmakers who have no understanding of film language. Every moment – whether it be a mere dialogue exchange or a setup to a creepy jolt – is without ambition, and for an exhausting 83 minutes viewers are dragged through a series of murky and nonsensical plot points that lead nowhere, offer no insight into the premise and lack any indication that some sort of explanation could be around the corner. This isn’t a journey, it’s a funeral procession. And once it draws to an inexplicable climax, the film doesn’t even have the decency to leave us with any kind of narrative hook that makes sense within the context of all that has happened before. So much of this feels unfinished that I suspect those involved behind the scenes were working under the influence of unrealistic deadlines.
The premise (at least on the basis of description) is inspiring. It concerns a cluster of four students working under a grant at college to experiment with something that could revolutionize the mechanics of modern medicine. In a nutshell: these scientists have discovered a compound that would allow doctors to bring a human being back to life, and when their experiments prove fruitful on a test subject canine, there is immediate excitement. Soon, however, that enthusiasm is replaced with underlying concern when it becomes apparent that the audacity of their experiment has left them with moral riddles, and when the dog itself begins exhibiting questionable behaviors – including an ability to get outside of its kennel – they react in all the typical ways that kids in horror movies are expected to: with wide eyes and sarcastic analogies to cloak their inner alarm.
There isn’t much opportunity for them to contemplate such issues though, because just as quickly as their findings come to the awareness of a school superior, a mysterious government agency purchases the lab and seizes all of their files, inevitably robbing them of the opportunity to progress further with their studies. They decide to replicate the experiment in order to establish their identities as the serum’s architects, and break into the school lab where they hope to bring another test subject back to life using leftover serum that was smuggled away. All of this, needless to say, is documented by the camera of a quiet but anxious reporter (played by Sarah Bolger), who watches on with certain moral reservations but does not voice any concerns – or at least not until the film’s critical turning point, in which Zoe (Olivia Wilde) is electrocuted during the experiment, dies, and inevitably becomes the new test subject for the serum so that her fiancée Frank (Mark Duplass) doesn’t have to deal with personal responsibility over her accidental demise.
There are countless facets of intrigue that come attached to narrative twists like these, and in many films they would likely inspire just as many discussion points as they would opportunities for thoughtful plot points, thrills or even tense climactic situations. But “The Lazarus Effect” is a curious example of the absence of such prospects. It is flaccid. There is no moment whatsoever in this entire project that leads anywhere, and the script by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater is more interested in putting up roadblocks rather than following through on any of the suggestions it dares to raise. Consider a scene, for example, in which the recently resurrected Zoe begins babbling on about what lies beyond earthly consciousness – for her, death was her most painful memory being repeated over and over again, and when the inquisitive reporter suggests that she might have been caught in a loop on the other side rather than being allowed to fully cross over, the movie implicates the memory as a way of suggesting that something must happen in order for the nightmare to be corrected. Unfortunately, it never actually develops into anything beyond being just another attempt at a scare without resolution.
Of course by that point, that doesn’t exactly come as a surprise; the movie is chock-full of moments that are all pointless sound and fury. What is the relevance, for example, of a scene featuring a showdown between the recently resurrected Zoe and the dog, both of whom show aggressive demeanors to one another? The camera shows them staring each other down, then cuts away long enough to hear a feint cry on part of the canine, who is never seen or heard from after (but is never actually said to be dead, either). Another example: Zoe’s behavior following her return to life becomes so enigmatic (and threatening) that the others characters bemuse whether it is a consequence of the serum enhancing her brain function, or whether she brought some kind of evil force back with her during the transition. Which is it, exactly? And furthermore, how does either scenario play into the notion that she develops an ability to sense the thoughts of others, manipulate objects and turn her eyes into threatening black orbs? Comic book writers would be able to explain all of this with effective significance in the pages of, say, an “X-Men” issue; here, they details are just visual gimmicks meant to imply that something deep is brewing, even as it all is left dangling over a cliff of detached reasoning.
The final moments are an even graver offense. After an endless slog through a plethora of interior shots that are badly lit and focused, there is a showdown between Zoe and two other characters that ends not with any sense of reveal or enlightenment, but with an inconclusive twist that implies the director and writers are interested in taking the story into potential sequels. What need is there for any? To answer painful questions that have no answers, or to swallow us up in more rounds of nonsensical diatribes that amount to no payoff or explanation? If there’s anything more infuriating than a movie that bites off way more than it knows how to chew, it’s a film that mistakenly assumes anyone watching cares enough to wonder what else is possible beyond the point of its initial implications. “The Lazarus Effect” is not ambitious enough to deserve a first glance, much less a possibility of follow-ups.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Horror/Suspense (US); 2015; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror and some sexual references; Running Time: 83 Minutes
Mark Duplass: Frank
Olivia Wilde: Zoe
Sarah Bolger: Eva
Evan Peters: Clay
Donald Glover: Niko
Produced by Jason Blum, Jeanette Brill, Phillip Dawe, Luke Dawson, Matthew Kaplan, Robyn Marshall, Jimmy Miller, Rick Osako, Michael Paseornek and Cody Zwieg; Directed by David Gelb; Written by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater
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