by Gary Westfahl
While the uninformed sometimes see science fiction solely as a genre of spaceships, aliens, and amazing gadgetry, one should also remember that there is a long tradition of medical science fiction, focused on posited advances in the ways that humans are created, nurtured, and treated for various health problems. Such stories can be traced back to nineteenth-century progenitors like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), and more modern examples include Curt Siodmak’s often-filmed Donovan’s Brain (1942) and Robin Cook novels like Mutation (1990). It will be noted, though, that all of the mentioned works involve medical experiments that go terribly wrong, resulting in horrific menaces to society, and despite promising hints of novelty in its opening scenes, the latest addition to this corpus of texts, David Gelb’s film The Lazarus Effect, ultimately veers down the same, very well-worn path.
After opening with some grainy footage of an unsuccessful experiment, the film introduces all the participants in yet another research project that is doomed to end disastrously: four scientists working at the fictional St. Paternus University in Berkeley, California – Frank Walton (Mark Duplass), his fiancée Zoe McConnell (Olivia Wilde), Clay (Evan Peters), and Niko (Donald Glover) – and a student filmmaker invited to record their activities, Eva (Sarah Bolger). Frank and Zoe have produced a “Lazarus serum” which, when injected into the brain of a preserved dead animal, should be able to bring the creature back to life. According to Frank, this work will benefit humanity by “giving everyone that second chance they deserve,” allowing physicians to keep critical patients viable longer and provide more time for treatment (for the unwise researchers in these stories always begin with admirable motives). However, when they finally succeed in reviving a dead dog named Rocky (Cato), the animal seems disturbingly different, alternately moody and dangerously aggressive (indeed, Cato provides the film with its most emotionally evocative performance). At this point, any experienced filmgoer can predict what will happen next: since audiences are usually more interested in people than in dogs, a human will eventually undergo the same treatment; and like Rocky, that reborn individual will be ominously different than their previous self. The only suspense involves which member of the cast will suddenly die and be returned from the dead, and precisely how their behavior and personality will be horrifically altered.
Before all of this happens, though, the film does contrive to raise some interesting issues about contemporary medical research and its potential ramifications. First, while nineteenth-century writers could imagine brilliant, independently wealthy individuals like Victor Frankenstein and Giacomo Rappaccini achieving breakthroughs all by themselves, modern researchers will necessarily be part of a team and will require the financial support of large institutions like foundations and universities, which will invariably establish innumerable rules and regulations to limit their activities. Most people believe that such oversight is necessary to ensure that all experiments are safe and ethical; yet when he is found to be violating the conditions of his grant, Frank argues that his actions were appropriate because medical research often depends upon “accidents” to open up unexpected avenues to important achievements. Further, if a sponsored research project does have valuable results, the film raises the question of whether the rewards should go to the scientists who did the work, or the institutions that paid for it. And the reason why Frank got into trouble with his superiors involves another modern concern, the right to privacy. Every action that Frank and his colleagues take, it appears, is being recorded: the black-and-white opening scene indicates that they are in the habit of crudely filming their own experiments; they ask a filmmaker to record their labors in a more professional manner; and the building where they do their research – and where virtually the entire film takes place – is constantly monitored by surveillance video which is occasionally incorporated into the film. With all this footage documenting their work, stored in cameras and computers that might readily be hacked into, it is hardly surprising that their unorthodox and unapproved research is eventually discovered, and that makes Frank indignant, since he had struggled to keep his team’s work a secret. Yet if someone is engaged in figuring out how to raise the dead, doesn’t society have the right to know about it?
Finally, since Rocky is visibly disturbed but not egregiously monstrous, he suggests that revived humans similarly might be only mildly changed by the experience, and this would pose a provocative quandary: if you were informed that modern science could bring your dead grandmother back to life, but with an unsettlingly altered mental state, would you want to do it? And would she really want another chance of life if she could not be the person she used to be? Science fiction literature, at its best, is often devoted to exploring precisely these sorts of questions, thoughtfully pondering how a posited scientific advance might affect a future society. Unfortunately, science fiction filmmakers typically have different priorities. And a careful consideration of how this revival technique might be introduced and implemented as part of our everyday lives would provide no opportunities for violent conflicts, spectacular special effects, and colorful explosions – and that’s what audiences really crave, right? Thus, it is also dishearteningly predictable that this film will soon forget about its intriguing philosophical and moral issues and focus its attention on a revived human who proves to be much more powerful, and much more threatening, than a dog that occasionally growls at you. (Perhaps as a signal that a more action-packed adventure is to follow, the equipment devised by Niko is said to look like the spaceship from Star Wars , the Millennium Falcon.) To epitomize the experience of watching The Lazarus Effect, then, imagine a new film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith (1925) in which Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, after years of quiet, painstaking medical research, somehow makes a mistake and ends up creating the Incredible Hulk.
But why, one might ask, does imagined medical research, in both literature and film, invariably lead to awful outcomes? After all, there are many documented cases of individuals who apparently died, and were even declared dead, yet later came to life again; and except for occasional tales to tell about their apparent experiences in the afterlife, they otherwise seemed exactly the same as they were before. Why should an artificial means of reviving the dead have insidious effects on one’s personality? There are many reasons to criticize recent science fiction adventures like Edge of Tomorrow (review here ) and Jupiter Ascending (review here) but like other, innumerable works of this sort, they are not arguments against scientific progress; rather, to the extent that they have any message at all about science, they merely indicate, logically enough, that like past scientific advances, future scientific advances are likely to have both positive and negative effects. Only when scientists apply their creative energies to improving the human body, it seems, are the results sure to be uniformly unpleasant, demonstrating persuasively that there are “things man is not meant to know.” Perhaps most people, while willing to embrace more superficial innovations like ray guns, space stations, and flying cars, are deeply conservative about their own human nature, fearful of any attempt to make people different, or to make different sorts of people. Technology is allowed to change, that is, but people cannot. For whatever reason, works of medical science fiction, like The Lazarus Effect, seem more akin to the genre of horror than to science fiction – because, as John W. Campbell, Jr. argued, science fiction is the literature of change, accepting the inevitability of change and eager to investigate both the helpful and harmful effects of potential change. In horror fiction, the status quo represents the way it has always been, and the way it always should be; any effort to significantly change the status quo is fundamentally evil and properly destined to lead to catastrophe.
In delivering their cautionary tales, horror stories regularly appeal to religion to buttress their position; thus, Frankenstein’s effort to artificially create a human being is viewed not merely as a violation of human moral codes, but a violation of God’s commandments. And The Lazarus Effect, with some degree of ambiguity, delivers this message as well. There are some explicit references to the Frankenstein story in the film, as Clay looks at the revived Rocky and exclaims “It’s alive! It’s alive” in the manner of Colin Clive’s Frankenstein (1931); the university dean who announces an end to Frank’s research tells him, “you are playing God with a bunch of dead animals”; and the main character’s full name seems to combine the names of Victor Frankenstein and the explorer who tells his story, Captain Robert Walton. There is also an ongoing dispute about the religious implications of Frank and Zoe’s research. Frank presents himself as a thoroughgoing materialist: death is merely a biological process, purported near-death experiences are really hallucinations generated by a bodily chemical, and reviving a dead body is basically similar to repairing a damaged machine; when the dean argues that his research could be upsetting to religious members of the university community, he derisively responds, “Don’t play the religion card.” But Zoe is a devout Catholic, regularly seen holding the cross she wears around her neck, and she is willing to believe in a human soul that survives death and transitions into an afterlife. Her tone is flippant, but when she asks, after good Rocky’s revival, “What if we ripped him out of doggie heaven?,” she is raising the possibility that their research represents a damaging disruption of the natural order of things. And certain events in the last part of the film can be interpreted two ways: as glimpses of a genuine afterlife, or the vivid hallucinations of a troubled individual. Interestingly, while science fiction films routinely reference Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), these visions are similar to scenes in another Kubrick film, his horror film The Shining (1980).
Granted, The Lazarus Effect is merely adding one small drumbeat to an extended chorus of fictional warnings that all medical experiments are misguided and sacrilegious, but the cumulative effects of these dubious dramas are nonetheless regrettable. Surely, the men and women now actively engaged in groundbreaking medical research, hoping to someday be celebrated as a new Jonas Salk for achieving some stunning breakthrough, must be disheartened to realize that virtually all of their literary and cinematic counterparts are routinely depicted as foolhardy overreachers whose work only brings about death, disease, and destruction. (One wonders if Daniel C. Allison, the physician and researcher who served as the film’s “Medical Advisor,” ever criticized its plot.) The religion of Christian Science has long thrived by promoting the principle that all forms of modern medicine are sinful and should be shunned. And irrational concerns about the purported but unproven dangers of worthwhile advances like fluoridated water, vaccinations, and genetically modified foods reveal a deeply rooted suspicion of the medical establishment that medical horror stories have undoubtedly helped to inculcate. There must be an entertaining story to tell about a fictional scientist whose medical research has nothing but beneficial results, like that of so many real scientists of the past and present, but it seems that no novelists or filmmakers are interested in telling it.
As another convention of the horror film, any character who defies the will of God must also exhibit some other moral failing to further justify their inevitable comeuppance, and everyone in The Lazarus Effect accordingly does at least one objectionable thing. In addition to displaying the classic vice of hubris, daring to defy God’s plan for the world, Frank regularly neglects Zoe to focus obsessively on his research; this inspires Niko to engage in some understated, but unmistakable, flirting with his fiancée (to eventually receive a positive response); Clay regularly smokes e-cigarettes, an unhealthy habit that brands him as a miscreant; and while Eva mostly seems sweetly virtuous, she eventually takes the lead in an act of criminal trespassing. Zoe’s major sin, revealed only near the end of the film, should not be described in a review, but suffice it to say that it’s a pretty big one. In other words, as in most horror films, every character, to some extent, deserves to die, though it remains uncertain until the conclusion which ones will actually suffer that fate.
It is not something that merits punishment, but the characters in this film also stand out for their very unusual tastes in music. Zoe is fond of playing a vinyl recording of the “Queen of the Night” aria from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (1791); the researchers celebrate Rocky’s rebirth by playing a piece of big band swing music, “The Peppermill Stomp”; and a poster announces someone’s fondness for Miner, a Los Angeles band with a proclivity for old-fashioned folk rock. (Internet research, however, has failed to explain the significance of another poster, apparently involving a musical performance, displaying the phrases “Radio Free,” “Iron Branch,” and “Rad Forum NYC.”) Perhaps the aria is intended to suggest that Zoe, like the singer, will someday seek “vengeance”; perhaps the other unorthodox choices are merely designed to reinforce the stereotype that scientists are odd people with peculiar habits; perhaps director Gelb merely wished to be different, or to employ some of his own musical favorites in his film.
One other aspect of the film attracts attention, a very unexpected but possibly revelatory statement: at one point, a character confirms Eva’s feeling that, despite her increasingly active participation in the research, she remains an outsider; her belittling remark is, “some people are destined for great things – others just hold the camera.” One is surprised to hear this sentiment conveyed in a film, since many filmmakers believe, obviously and quite justifiably, that a person can achieve great things by holding a camera. But Gelb may be telling his audience that, in making The Lazarus Effect, he had no such aspirations; some directors will strive to create innovative masterpieces, but others may be content to seek a profit for their investors by offering yet another variation on a familiar, time-tested theme. And while it is a variation done artfully enough, that represents the highest praise one can offer for this film, that it is again bringing to life an old, old story that, it seems, will never really die.