“Flatliners” (2017): Death Takes a Holiday

Image source: en.wikipedia.org

1990’s Flatliners took Joel Schumacher’s penchant for young, fresh-faced casts and placed them within a promising story: a group of med students (including Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, and Kevin Bacon) decide to tempt fate by subjecting themselves to death simulations. The results are akin to an Ecstasy high, but as with any controlled substance, increased exposure leads to certain side effects.

Peter Filardi’s script begins with great promise, inviting viewers to embrace questions of existence and the afterlife (if any), but the intrigue is dashed when he offers oversimplified answers to his provoking questions. This isn’t helped by Schumacher’s heavy-handed rendering of the moral of the story: that atonement for our sins in life outweighs the promise of an afterlife (if any).

In other words: they turned a potentially mind-blowing concept into Sunday School 101.

Neils Arden Oplev, who directed the pulpy Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, turns out to be a fitting choice for the Flatliners remake. He jettisons most of Schumacher’s laughably baroque touches (including operating theaters that resemble wings of an art gallery), creating a world that’s grounded enough in reality to make the more psychedelic aspects of Ben Ripley’s script shine with dread and unease. There are jump scares, but not all are scored with shrieking, obvious strings – some are cued with an innocuous bass thrum; others aren’t scored at all.

For a good three-quarters of its run time, this Flatliners feels like it’s reaching for something greater than the feeble lessons Filardi and Schumacher imparted. Is it always successful? No. But it shouldn’t be faulted for trying.

Like The Lazarus Effect (itself an unofficial riff of Flatliners), the remake’s cast is underwear-model beautiful, and not always convincing. But I had an easier time buying into each student’s conflicts: Courtney’s (Ellen Page) long-festering guilt over the death of her younger sister; womanizing douche Jamie’s (James Norton) regret over a complicated breakup and the fate of his unborn child; Marlo (Nina Dobrev) and a mistake that cost a patient his life; and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), whose overachiever nature led to a classmate’s ruin. The only character who reacts sensibly to Courtney’s “flatline” proposal is enigmatic elder statesman Ray (Diego Luna), who finds himself in a quandary over the activity and what it aims to accomplish.

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The cast of Flatliners checks the consensus on Rotten Tomatoes. Image source: fandango.com

As horror premises go, Flatliners is as classical as Frankenstein. Courtney’s motive for the experiment is vague, but reasons aren’t difficult to gather: 1) to find a sense of closure for her sister’s death; and 2) to subject herself to the experience of death as a form of self-flagellation for the guilt she feels. By bringing some unsuspecting people into it, she has guaranteed accomplices. Page, who has built a career on playing a wide variety of strong characters, continues her streak here; she brings an integrity, duplicity and sophistication to Courtney that lures the viewer in. Similarly, when her world begins to unravel as a result of the experiment, her eroding sanity is just as infectious.

Perhaps it’s the lack of “star quality” that allowed me to connect with these characters more than their 1990 counterparts. After the success of Courtney’s inaugural flatline, the rest of the group (with the exception of Ray) is anxious to try it for themselves. As things progress, the friends become competitive in how long they go under, which is an apt comment on a culture that frequently markets anything from sporting events to media to food as “extreme.” I also found the inclusion of a sexual angle very fitting – that, following a flatline, the participant awakens with a heightened libido; what better than a near-death experience to get the carnal juices flowing?

I also like how the group finds themselves at an open-air rave following a prosperous session, while hellfire spews from a barrel nearby (on the nose, but it works). As with the heightened libido, the flatline experience is presented – at least initially – as something as carefree as candy-flipping at…well, an open-air rave. But the side effects eventually kick in, and while Oplev manages to create solid suspense through the second act, the film relents from the gates of insight and (narrative) experimentation to serve up lessons similar to those in Schumacher’s film.

That being said, I liked Flatliners overall. Even if few of these actors make for convincing med students, that naivete and curiosity helped me relate more to their situation. And Oplev creates many sequences that dazzle on a visual level, while also creating palpable tension. There is a somber, wintry sheen to the Boston setting that complements the morbid proceedings, creating a mood of fascination tinged with peril.

And Hollywood, if you want someone to write a sequel that runs with the existential horror of this premise, give me a call!

Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 3 out of 5 stars