Unless you’ve actively avoided recent TV commercials, the Internet, and the New Testament, you’ll know from its title what The Lazarus Effect is about — bringing the dead back to life. As a concept or a desire, the notion probably goes back further than history. As an actual scientific possibility, one need go back no further than Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which is just a little shy of its 200th birthday.
In The Lazarus Effect, Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister) plays Frank (a nod to Shelley’s book), who heads a research team trying to reanimate the dead. He is a zealot, but a likable one. His fiancée, Zoe (Olivia Wilde), is also part of the team; she shares his enthusiasm, but her religious streak — she wears a cross — makes her uneasy with the moral implications of their work. (All the talk about the moral problems overlooks the fact that we already bring people back to life. The difference between standard CPR and what Frank’s team does is one of degree, not of type.)
Working together with Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover), their research has led them to that old favorite of horror movies, the pineal gland. This little nubbin, nestling upon the brain, allegedly releases a flood of dimethyltryptamine (aka DMT) at the moment of death; the DMT in turn allegedly creates the white light and hallucinations of the typical near-death experience.
This has some basis in actual science. And many friends from my college days can testify to the notion that DMT — which can also be smoked — produces powerful, thankfully very brief, visions. It is not for nothing that the DMT experience was known as “the businessman’s trip.”
These folks combine DMT with some other stuff with long names and inject it into Rocky, a dead dog. Next thing you know, Rocky is up and alive, appearing alternately depressed and angry. Frank and Zoe, displaying stupidity unbecoming a pair of scientists, take the dog home with them.
An evil industrialist (Ray Wise, of Twin Peaks fame, showing up for one scene) buys out their grant, shuts down the project, and absconds with all their equipment. If only they could re-create their experiment … with their friend Eva (Sarah Bolger) … by breaking into the lab …
Predictably — particularly since it’s revealed in the ads — the experiment misfires, Zoe is killed, and, gee, they do have the drug right there, and she couldn’t be any worse off, so why not … ?
She couldn’t be any worse off, but they could, as they find out after they revive her.
The film does its best to come up with plausible (to non-scientists) explanations for everything, but tosses that away when, for no reason, she uses a demon voice. And, by a screenwriter’s coincidence, Zoe just happens to be the one in the group with a secret back story that makes her already a candidate for psychosis.
Ninety percent of The Lazarus Effect takes place in the lab and nearby corridors, which goes a long way to explaining how director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) brought in a film with special effects for under $5 million. It would have been nice if he had also brought in some fresher ideas. The players draw us in with charm, but even the best moments feel ridiculously familiar.