Let's pretend that The Lazarus Effect is a good movie . . . | Bleader

Let's pretend that The Lazarus Effect is a good movie . . .


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The Lazarus Effect
  • The Lazarus Effect
A thirtysomething couple, partners in work as well as life, are coming apart. They've been engaged for three years, but he keeps putting off the wedding, using their professional commitments as an excuse. She, on the other hand, desires a confirmation of their bond, and she can feel herself turning sour the longer she waits for it. Maybe it's her Catholic upbringing that makes her feel this way or else some psychological need for certainty—she is a scientist, after all. But then, so is he. Why isn't he more sympathetic to how she's feeling? Sometimes she suspects that their work is all he really cares about. He doesn't express even a twinge of jealousy when she jokes around with a former boyfriend who's a member of their research team.

Not that he doesn't have issues with her. The team has just made a tremendous breakthrough in their research, and only now, after several years of experiments, has she begun to voice concerns about the moral implications of their work. Sure, their work has brought them into dangerous waters, morally speaking, but why didn't she leave earlier if she knew this would bother her so much? What they've developed is a serum that triggers vital functions in the recently deceased—an invention that will provide doctors with "a little more time" in life-or-death operations. She wonders if it isn't a little obscene that they've given doctors another tool with which to "play God." As a resolute atheist, he doesn't fret over such questions, and he quietly resents her air of superiority when she talks to him about morals.

Both in and out of the lab, they're committed to resuscitating that which has died, but neither has the guts to acknowledge the irony out loud. How difficult it would be to break up now, just when they're ready to start testing the serum on animals. To address their personal conflict would mean sapping intellectual energy they ought to be spending on work. Anyhow, they're still comfortable enough. It's not like they're at each other's throats or anything. They work well together, and they recognize that this project is much bigger than whatever's bothering them at home.

That's the setup of The Lazarus Effect, an aggravatingly straightforward horror film that opened last weekend to middling reviews, including one from yours truly. I called it "thematically thin, but competently made," though now I think I got it backwards. As I've tried to illustrate here, the film is rich in thematic potential, the experiment serving as a locus of various issues about work, love, and faith. Can two people build a lasting romantic partnership if one is religious and the other isn't? Can shared professional achievement sustain an otherwise disappointing partnership? Are human beings meant to know what happens after we die?

The Lazarus Effect
  • The Lazarus Effect

These issues converge in the movie's second half, when the hero recklessly uses the serum on the heroine after she dies in a lab accident. She returns to life, but she doesn't seem the same as before. She acts more and more strangely, causing the other scientists to wonder if her soul may have been corrupted by something from beyond the grave. Were The Lazarus Effect a better movie, this turn would register as a metaphor for the shocking discovery you no longer relate to someone whom you've known intimately for some time. We'd realize that the hero isn't frightened by his partner's change in behavior, but by the suspicion that he never understood her at all.

This fear is the motivating force behind a good deal of modern French art cinema, including films by Francois Ozon (Under the Sand, In the House), Sophie Fillières (If You Don't, I Will), Dominik Moll (Lemming), and Jacques Doillon (The Crying Woman, Just Anybody), currently the subject of a Doc Films retrospective. (Incidentally, Doillon will make a rare Chicago appearance this coming Monday to introduce Doc's screening of his latest feature, Love Battles.) These films argue that other people are ultimately unknowable, regardless of how well we think we know them. Since Freud, modern psychology has attempted to assuage these suspicions, to some degree of success, but nothing will ever eliminate them altogether.

The Lazarus Effect assuages viewers by offering a simple explanation for heroine's strange behavior—she was turned into some kind of demon after descending into hell. This explanation, given no metaphorical resonance whatsoever, is just one way that the filmmakers squander the potential of their scenario. I'd prefer not to go into the others. The movie is by no means an extraordinary failure, simply a frustrating one, given how many provocative ideas are within its reach.