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Corpses awaken while audience falls fast asleep

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    (Left to right.) Sarah Bolger and Olivia Wilde star in Relativity Media's "The Lazarus Effect"...© 2013 BACK TO LIFE PRODUCTIONS, LLC. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Relativity Media.

"The Lazarus Effect" is not the usual mindless thriller, but it’s as flat as an open soda can from last week, with dull characters and virtually every scene taking place in a single location. It looks like it cost about twelve bucks to make — and somebody got robbed.

Rated: PG-13
Opens Friday

In talking about "The Lazarus Effect," a distinction must be made between the "Lazarus Effect" within the movie and the effect of "The Lazarus Effect" on audiences watching the movie. These are opposed reactions, with the first causing the dead to wake, and the second causing audiences to go all-but comatose. Further research is indicated.

Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass play a girlfriend-boyfriend pair of scientists, working with two junior assistants, one melancholy and one jolly. (In horror thrillers, jolly assistants are preferred, because they make the best victims.) The quartet is devising a process — combining a serum, neural stimulation and electric shock — that can regenerate life.

Things start getting interesting when the team revives a nice old dog, but the dog looks forlorn about getting brought back to life, and tests indicate that his brain is overactive from the serum. The dog soon almost becomes hostile — but only almost. As a script, "The Lazarus Effect" too often stays confined to gestures, with feints in the direction of action, and promises of action, but with no action actually taking place.

It’s also one of those movies — there are so many — made by people under the impression that creating deafening crescendos on the sound track will cause audiences to jump. This might be true, just as it’s true that if you were to go up to people on the street and scream right in their face, they would jump, too. But it wouldn’t make you Hitchcock.

Yet there are elements in this movie that are fairly worthwhile, despite the movie’s gloomy lurk and depressed pace. The movie covers some of the same ground as Luc Besson’s "Lucy," about what might have happened if people started using their full brain capacity. It does so with less imagination or success, but it combines this idea with ruminations on the aftermath. For example, why are there so many back-from-the-dead reports of a white light and a tunnel? And what is hell? (Heaven doesn’t get much of a workout here.)

"I did everything right, and I still ended up in hell," a character laments. It’s the movie’s best line, and while some might walk out paraphrasing it (e.g., "I did everything right and still ended up at "The Lazarus Effect"), the moment does land with some force. It’s a moment, really the only one in the entire film, that does what horror thrillers are supposed to do: It makes you feel like the universe is stacked against you.

Also, even though the movie gets worse and worse, Olivia Wilde gets better and better. She has a face that’s naked to the camera, and the best thing director David Gelb does here is give Wilde lots of close-ups.

Still, this is an 83-minute movie that feels a half hour longer and, if it weren’t for the loud crescendos, it would put people to sleep. That’s not the effect they were going for.

Review by Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

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