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Science, Religion, and Horror — “The Lazarus Effect”

Lazarus Effect 1

by Gabriel Valdez

Horror movies are a little weird. We don’t always watch horror looking for good cinema, we watch it for effective scares. Some truly bad movies still have the ability to scare us.

The Lazarus Effect is very effective some of the time, but it’s interrupted by ferocious bouts of quirkiness. And not the good kind. Scientists are playing god by attempting to bring dead animals back to life. Inevitably, there’s an accidental death that forces our heroes to bring a human (Olivia Wilde) back to life instead. The only problem is that a few minutes of death here equals years and years in Hell. Also, Hell lends you superpowers for reasons nobody ever figures out.

There are some major issues in the shot choices and editing, which are both crucial in creating mood and rhythm for your scares to inhabit. Lazarus relies almost entirely on jump scares, where something jumps at a character from off-screen accompanied by a loud noise.

This means we can’t anticipate the scares, but we can predict them. Anticipation means we know they’re coming, we just can’t be sure of when. There’s a nervousness to anticipation. Often it happens when the audience sees something the characters can’t. Lazarus has no anticipation.

Prediction means we could time every scare’s arrival on a stopwatch. Predictable scares can still be frightening, but they don’t hold the same power in our psyche. They can make us jump, but they can’t lurk in the back of our minds and send chills up our spines. Lazarus can scare you, sure, but it won’t get inside your head.

Lazarus Effect 2

Wilde does make up for a lot of this. She is extraordinarily good in a role that requires her to play across the board – she can recite the technical babble behind her experiment like she’s on another episode of House, but there’s a later sequence in which she changes personalities depending on who’s in the room with her. She shines in these moments and gives us the only character who really feels like she belongs in that lab.

Unfortunately, and I hate to drag an actor out like this, Mark Duplass is awful. He plays the experiment’s co-leader and Wilde’s boyfriend. He’s been good in a lot of indie comedies, especially Safety Not Guaranteed, but he makes some very bad choices here. The interplay between Wilde and Duplass should create the dynamic of two scientists jousting over ideas (she believes in an afterlife, he doesn’t) and uncomfortably struggling to fit their philosophical disagreements into their more intimate relationship. Instead, it comes across as two actors hauling the quality of the movie in two very different directions. The rest of the cast – including comedian/rap artist Donald Glover – is charming, but isn’t the best fit for this film.

Lazarus is PG-13, rare for horror. There’s a hint of body horror and some trickles of blood but Lazarus uses some visual shortcuts to imply what you’ve seen in gorier horror movies. Honestly, I hardly noticed the absence – the best horror is built on psychology, not blood. It means that Lazarus relies more on its ideas, and these do become more frightening as we grasp the broader religious and scientific ideas at play.

Lazarus Effect glide

This creates a vicious cycle: a great horror idea gets you excited, but you’re disappointed by its failed execution. Wilde saves the moment through sheer acting willpower, and Duplass sabotages it by making all the wrong choices. This is saved by another great horror idea, but it’s executed badly and so on and so on.

It’s like a football game where whoever gets the ball last wins. Thankfully, we see Wilde more than Duplass, and the movie’s final twist adds a terrific motive to violence that earlier seemed a bit senseless. Home team wins.

Lazarus is a combination of great ideas, predictable yet effective jump scares, and a very out-of-place cast relying on Wilde as the only glue that holds it all together. We invented an award here recently called Most Thankless Role – it’s for actors who do great work in B-movies. I have a feeling Wilde’s going to contend this year.

The Lazarus Effect might only be a pond in the desert that is horror filmmaking right now, but that still makes it feel like an oasis worth visiting. It didn’t scare me as much as I would have liked, but its story felt rewarding.

If you’re looking for a better version of Lazarus, consider Flatliners, an often forgotten horror gem from 1990 that brought together Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, and Kiefer Sutherland.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Lazarus Effect have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Olivia Wilde plays the lead researcher Zoe and Sarah Bolger plays videographer Eva. There’s also a university president played by Amy Aquino and a little girl played by Emily Kelavos.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a woman?

Yes. Horror is one of the only genres to regularly pass the Bechdel Test with ease. Zoe and Eva talk to each other as often as any of the men do, and it’s always about science, religion, or the crazy horror shenanigans going on around them. They’re also the two most proactive characters in the whole movie.

There’s actually not a whole lot to say about it beyond this. Lazarus is cut to the bone as a movie – it’s only 83 minutes long – so there’s not a whole lot to analyze here. In terms of capability and agency, it presents a positive portrayal of women.

Taking Contests of Faith Out of the Playground — “Heaven is for Real”

Heaven Kinnear Reilly

I remember when I was a kid. At recess, the boys would chase the girls around the playground, and then the girls would chase the boys around, and then we’d start all over again. Anyone who was visibly different – by race or religion or handicap – would get a hard time from the bullies, and the rest of us would often fall in line because, after all, the title ‘bully’ isn’t given without reason.

Heaven is for Real is the story of Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), who nearly loses his son Colton (Connor Corum) from a burst appendix. When Colton recovers, he tells his father about having an out-of-body experience in which he visits Heaven.

Before this, we get a glimpse of Todd’s family life – he’s a small-town pastor who’s successfully drawn in new congregants. Nonetheless, his family is facing financial disaster. He works an extra job as a repairman, but times are tough.

The crux of the movie is Colton’s vision of Heaven. Despite being a pastor, Todd has a difficult time accepting it as real. His wife’s doubts are even greater, but Sonja (Kelly Reilly) is the rock of the family and has to act the part. Director Randall Wallace, most famous for writing the screenplay for Braveheart, does show us bits and pieces of Colton’s vision. This might seem unwise, but the specificity of Colton’s vision is what becomes so controversial. Congregants challenge the details – Colton’s heart never stopped, so how can he have a near-death experience – as if there’s a rulebook on this sort of thing.

Kelly Reilly

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Everyone keeps telling Todd their personal interpretation of religion should be his, too. It gives him no time to heal, only to react. Heaven is for Real rarely preaches – it’s far more interested in telling a story. That’s what makes it a successful movie. Todd and Sonja’s journey of faith demands others be less self-centered about their own.

Heaven is for Real is a gorgeously shot film. Its outdoor locations highlight the vast, still beauty of the Midwest. Kinnear and Reilly are what make it all work. There’s a decent amount of overacting in this, especially at the hospital – all of Wallace’s films suffer from a lack of dramatic restraint – but Kinnear and Reilly are able to constantly re-invest the viewer in their struggles.

The movie only veers into proselytizing once – when Todd visits a psychiatrist who is non-religious. She acts like no board-certified psychiatrist ever would, shooting down his faith the minute he walks in the door rather than listening to him and asking questions. It’s a clunky, inaccurate moment in a film that otherwise takes a higher road than picking fights with non-believers.

Lately, some faith-based movies and certain science shows have picked those fights – them versus us. Science or religion. We’ve even held celebrity debates that are watched by millions of online viewers, as if the contest is some sort of sport. We’re inches away from season ticket sales and peanut vendors.

Greg K 2

You know, the Star Trek series of TV shows is often credited for getting more young men and women interested in scientific careers than any other piece of creative art. Like Heaven is for Real, it is incredibly earnest and occasionally cheesy. There’s an episode in which Captain Kirk, cheesiest of them all, describes a novelist whose works change humanity’s future. He says our three most important words become “Let me help,” held in even higher esteem than “I love you.” Wanting to help is the reason many go into the sciences. In his last sermon in Heaven is for Real, Todd boils down the essence of belief to a simple concept. It “lets you know you’re not alone.”

“Let me help. You’re not alone.” I think those two sentiments go together pretty well. I remember when I was a kid, after all. Anyone who was visibly different would get a hard time from the bullies. I wish I’d stood up to them more often. Science or religion? Both sides have their bullies, leading chases around the playground after the other one.

Heaven is for Real reminds us that faith isn’t owned by anyone – it’s personal for each of us, and that’s OK. Disagreement shouldn’t lead to fights that do nothing but distract us. It’s not kindergarten. We’re not in recess anymore.

Greg Kinnear

Heaven is for Real is rated PG for medical situations.