Writer-directorJoel Potrykus lives in Grand Rapids, MI, where he teaching filmmaking at Grand Valley State University. His work has premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival and screened at the Lincoln Center and MoMA. His latest film, Relaxer, is in select theaters through Oscilloscope from March 22. (Photo courtesy of Sob Noisse.)
Before watching a movie, I try to learn as much about the filmmakers as possible, and as little as possible about the actual film. I want to be surprised. For me, watching trailers or reading reviews ahead of time is as taboo as reading CliffsNotes for a good book. With a title like The Lazarus Effect, I knew fairly well what to expect. I was ready for lots of stone-cold serious, doom-and-gloom technobabble. A few slug lines boiled it down easily: A small team of scientists works tirelessly on a serum that they hope can revive the dead. They start with animals, and are eventually forced to use the serum on one of their own. Pretty cut-and-dried. I’m a fan of Re-Animator and a few of its imitators, so, as derivative and one-note as it may’ve sounded, I was able to remind myself: it’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it.
I was a little confused to learn that the director, David Gelb, had also made the acclaimed 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. That film had been in my Netflix queue for a very long time, but was always trumped by something in the Lars von Trier back catalogue or another episode of Kids in the Hall. I’d never doubted the nearly unanimous praise for the documentary, and I love sushi as much as the next guy, but I never got hyped for 81 minutes worth of raw fish. I finally watched Jiro in preparation for Lazarus. It was hard to dissect the reasons behind a sushi doc director being hired to helm a sci-fi horror movie until I saw the camera obsessing over slices of meat, tracking through the sanitary, laboratory-like conditions, and Gelb’s interest in the people behind the food.
The Lazarus Effect’s most notable appeal is the casting of mumblecore pioneer Mark Duplass in the lead role, in which he’s required to pull off playing a full-blown brain surgeon, a 180-spin from his usual neurotic modern man. Instead of bickering about whose turn it is to do the dishes, Duplass is asked to sip wine by the fireside and casually inform his fiancé, Olivia Wilde, that it takes awhile to “restitch those neural pathways.” Attractive though they may be, none of the actors was hired from a modeling catalogue; they’re all smart performers who come from a world outside of genre movies. Donald Glover is also a comedian and a rapper. He knows how to roll with it. Evan Peters is likely the only credible connection to the genre, having stolen the show in X-Men: Days of Future Past and, for some reason, agreeing to stay on with American Horror Story for four seasons and counting. These indie actors work outside their norm, breathing life into fairly one-dimensional characters, and for this, The Lazarus Effect almost feels like an experimental film. Duplass and Wilde’s humanity and everyday personas almost redeem Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater’s script. Almost.
As someone who grew up in the ’80s, I understand both this movie and the vision of producer Jason Blum, the man behind Blumhouse Productions. Blum is able to work more efficiently than the Hollywood studios and the indie world combined, making small, inexpensive genre-based features with recognizable name actors that are able to compete in the corporate theater-chain world. Blum may be a present-day Roger Corman, but The Lazarus Effect is not in any way a throwback film; it’s a straightforward PG-13 genre entry that’s out to make a buck.
As a kid, I loved The Lawnmower Man. It’s an R-rated sci-fi thriller, loaded with hyperbolic technobabble and absurd exposition, but I don’t think it was ever intended for adults. It’s a film that tells the audience everything, holding their hand the entire time. It has no supernatural mystery and, although it’s about a man-boy turning into a superhero through virtual reality, it ultimately plays it safe. It was made for 14-year-old boys who wandered into the video store looking for something cool to rent for their birthday pizza party. And it worked. The Lazarus Effect walks a similar line to The Lawnmower Man. Back then, I would’ve loved it as much as I loved Mountain Dew.
Alas, this film wasn’t made for a 2015 Joel Potrykus. As much as I still love Mountain Dew and Hot-N-Ready pizza, The Lazarus Effect wasn’t made for a guy well into his thirties who has also embraced minimalism and neorealism. It wasn’t made for filmmakers to analyze and pit against similar films of its breed. It’s not going to be in the Criterion Collection.
At my 11 a.m. screening of the movie, there was an older woman sitting alone near the front who began texting halfway through, her phone like a lantern in the dark theater. I’m not one to sit back and let that sort of thing slide, so I walked down to her seat and asked her to put the phone away. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she jumped in shock, completely startled to find some weirdo breathing down her neck. I’m sure it wasn’t the type of jump scare she anticipated when buying the ticket. And I’m sure it aroused more of a reaction in her than the film itself. She walked out long before the credits rolled. The film wasn’t made for her either.
There were two guys in their twenties sitting just behind me in the back row, slugging off gigantic Sprite cups the entire time. They never once left for the bathroom. They laughed at the right times, they gasped at the right times. And I’m sure they left thrilled and stoked to see it again. The Lazarus Effect was made for them.
At one point, Olivia Wilde’s possessed character chides their newly hired documentarian, saying, “Some people are destined for greatness, and some are just made to hold the camera.” As with the entirety of the film, I’m sure that snippet of dialogue has some sort of meta context, but I’m just not sure I’m the right one to figure it out.