Not a year after Luc Besson built an action thriller around one of the most egregious of bad-science misconceptions, along comes The Lazarus Effect to set the record straight. It’s a myth, insists researcher Niko (Donald Glover), that people use only 10 percent of their brains. They actually use 10 percent at a time, he clarifies—also false, but it sounds a little smarter, doesn’t it? Two parts Lucy, one part Flatliners, this 80-minute stroke of anti-genius goes heavy on pseudoscience and partial-truths, as though the screenwriters spent about half of the film’s running time paging through some old issues of Scientific American in search of useful soundbites for the characters to spout. It’s the cinematic equivalent of putting glasses and a white lab coat on the village idiot. The minutes would have been better spent assuring that this hoary hokum actually made a lick of sense.
The film begins with plucky graduate student Eva (Sarah Bolger) signing on for a Berkeley research project already in progress. The scientists that she runs camera for don’t look or behave like academics: Engaged head researchers Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) spent as much time bickering about their delayed nuptials as they do performing experiments, while Niko not-so-secretly pines for Zoe and comic-relief Clay (American Horror Story’s Evan Peters) cracks wise and vapes. In between hangout sessions, these hipster eggheads pump animal carcasses full of a milky white serum, administering electric charges to get the dead neurons firing again. Before long, they’ve revived a deceased pooch; in a characteristic display of professional judgment, Frank and Zoe take the animal home with them, even after it’s started exhibiting erratic behavior. (A scene of the resurrected canine silently standing over Zoe while she sleeps is the first major sign that this will be a very silly movie.)
Naturally, it isn’t long before Zoe meets her maker in a terrible accident, and her bereaved, mad-scientist lover is ignoring the lessons of Pet Sematary. Cheating death, as it turns out, provides one hell of a brain boost; fringe benefits of reconnecting the mortal coil include telepathy, telekinesis, nightmare projection, advanced healing, and—especially useful for a horror-movie vixen—the ability to strategically cut the lights. It’s when The Lazarus Effect slips into body-count mode that its logic starts getting really foggy. Has Zoe gone to hell and back, or is she just using her new cranial capacity to work through traumatic memories? The film never decides, though it does provide its bewildered characters with plenty of useful terminology (the psychedelic compound DMT comes up a lot) to throw at their supernatural dilemma.
All of this would be more forgivable if The Lazarus Effect were remotely effective at putting viewers on edge. But director David Gelb—whose previous feature, Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, gets a culinary callback—makes an awkward transition from point-and-shoot documentary filmmaking to the higher demands of horror helming. His tactics are tired and very PG-13: A rubber ball bounces ominously into a room, flashes of burning dolls tease a horrific backstory, and every third jolt is a fake out. Gelb also badly telegraphs his jump scares, conspicuously dipping the volume when a “shocking” blare of music is imminent and holding on shots for so long that the only possible outcome is something spooky appearing suddenly in frame. Like too many horror films, this one seems targeted at a hypothetical audience using only 10 percent of its brainpower.