Sort of a Flatliners for the sensitive indie-actor set, The Lazarus Effect is a grimy, dopey, confused thriller that wastes a very likable cast. The film takes place mostly in a Berkeley lab where a group of young medical researchers are developing an experimental new serum designed to prolong the neural activity of coma patients. The idea is “to give health care professionals more time to do their jobs” — because, of course, mad scientists who trample the laws of God always start off with the noblest of aims. From the film’s very first shot — video footage of a dead pig being given high-voltage doses of electricity — we know that these crazy kids are about to start bringing things back to life.
In its early scenes, the film makes a halfhearted attempt to seem smart: The scientists’ chatter is filled with impenetrable technobabble about “membrane voltages” and “restitching neural pathways.” They have deep conversations about the soul and the afterlife. And they also seem to exist in a swirl of soap-opera dynamics. Nico (Donald Glover) was once together with Zoe (Olivia Wilde), but they broke up, and he still carries a torch for her; now, however, she’s engaged to marry Frank (Mark Duplass). But he’s married to the work; Zoe and Frank postponed their wedding once they got their research grant, and he hasn’t spoken of matrimony since. She’s a good Catholic girl, which means she not only dreams of getting married, but also has doubts about this whole bringing-things-back-from-the-dead thing. He, meanwhile, is a petulant scientist par excellence, unwilling to harbor any beliefs of an afterlife and smugly convinced he’s always right.
Then, one of their experiments finally goes right, and a dead dog straight from the freezer is reanimated. Soon enough, the happy pup is playing and running and nestling … and breaking out of its cage, tearing apart giant refrigerators, and haunting Zoe’s nightmares. Anyway, after some hilariously forced narrative developments involving a Big Pharma takeover of their lab, one last, desperate attempt to bring a different dead dog to life results in catastrophe, and Zoe is electrocuted. The sorrowful Frank (as in “N. Stein,” I presume) puts her on the operating table, injects the serum, and voilà – she’s back, white as a ghost and, well, different. Tense, nervous, angry. She tells Frank that in the brief period when she was dead, she found herself trapped in Hell — for years. She also displays extraordinary powers: She can move things with her mind; she can hear people’s thoughts; she can speak their words before they do. Needless to say, the technobabble and soul-searching of the first half are now gone, replaced with dialogue of almost refreshing stupidity. “It’s the serum! It’s unlocking the part of your brain that lets you do crazy psychic shit!” one of the researchers yells. Hey, don’t laugh; he’s not wrong.
Boy, does he not know how un-wrong he is. At one point, Zoe throws someone inside a metal cabinet, then crushes them — all with her mind. Then she sends someone else to Hell — with her mind. She’s like the heroine in Luc Besson’s Lucy, who took a drug and unleashed all her brain capacity, which eventually allowed her to bend the fabric of space and time. But there, the excitement built from our anticipation of what the character might do next; the film mixed the fantasy of empowerment with the terror of the unknown. (It was also directed by Luc Besson, who knows a thing or two about staging an action scene.) The Lazarus Effect has no such savvy or artful perversity. Here, it all escalates so randomly, so quickly that the audience has no chance to wait, wonder, or fear. The film rushes headlong into ante-upping histrionics, kneecapping even its own pathetic attempts at suspense. (I mean, who gives a shit if Zoe’s sneaking up on you when she’s already sent you to Hell?)
The Lazarus Effect is simultaneously too much and not enough. All the weak jump-scares and unmotivated actions of the third act do away with any pretense of tension or thought — which is a shame for a film that earlier tried, however haphazardly, to play its characters’ belief systems against one another. At heart, there are two movies at conflict in The Lazarus Effect. Neither is good, but together, they’re worse.