Back in 1990, the original Flatliners was able to deflect mixed reviews by showcasing its talented young cast (Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, & Kevin Bacon to name a few) and illustrating a sense of style and atmosphere that is a signature of director Joel Schumacher. I’ve always thought the film was a little hokey but it’s a prime example of style sometimes taking a front seat to substance and actually working. The film was a moderate hit in the summer of 1990 at the box office and even became a big staple in the growing VHS market. It has earned its right to call itself a cult classic.
The 2017 incarnation which is being marketed as a remake (or a sequel depending on if the notion of remaking the original pisses off hardcore fans) takes the premise of the original mixes it with a bit of supernatural horror but none of the style that is the original’s biggest asset. To call it lifeless or DOA may seem too obvious but the adjectives fit the film nicely. The film is slickly produced and all of the actors outshine the ridiculous script but this isn’t substantial enough to make you invest in this film when seeking out the original is a cheaper alternative.
Flatliners chronicles the experiences of five medical students who defy the natural order by allowing themselves to die so they can get a taste of the afterlife before being revived. They are led by Dr. Courtney Holmes (Ellen Page), who carries a burden of guilt for her sister’s death (she was a distracted driver when a fatal accident occurred). Other participants in the experiment are cocky Jamie (James Norton), insecure Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), and driven Marlo (Nina Dobrev). Ray (Diego Luna), the fifth member of the group, is the only one who elects not to kill himself. He stays among the living and is spared the psychological trauma they all eventually experience. At first, “flatlining”, as it’s called, seems to be all upside. By rewiring parts of the brain, it allows access to previously unlocked areas and increased intelligence. One of the characters refers to it as a new designer drug. But it soon emerges that there are side effects – creepy visions and a sense of paranoia. Are they hallucinations or has something “followed” the flatliners back from the other side?
If you’ve seen the original Flatliners, there’s no convincing reason to watch the remake because too little new ground is covered to freshen up the experience. If you haven’t seen the original Flatliners, it’s still difficult to make a case for the remake. It’s monotonous, repetitive (there’s a lot of running around in dim rooms, corridors, and places in the limbo-world between life and death), and not especially satisfying. It’s interesting that with a bigger budget and 2017 technology, the “flatlining” sequences aren’t nearly as interesting as the ones in the original. Schumacher constructed those sequences with style while the director of the remake, Niels Arden Oplev, doesn’t do much with them to get the pulse going. The original made you feel like you were going under with them but there is a disconnect here, perhaps because the sequences are a bit too polished to work. There was something a tad gritty about what Schumacher was doing and that’s not on display here.
There’s another issue with Flatliners. It’s boring. The characters, with all their petty individual dramas, are pretty uninteresting. The PG-13 rating (the original was rated R) disallows any heat, whether it be erotic (there’s plenty of tame, carefully edited sex) or fear-induced. Aside from a couple of cheap jump-scares, the fright quotient is disappointingly low. The self-help aspect (about making amends for past misdeeds) is as poorly conceived and badly executed (this was a problem in the original as well but it wasn’t glaringly an issue because so much of the film actually worked). All the juicy possibilities for where the story could go are left untouched. For someone with vision and a willingness to break free of the bonds of the earlier iteration, this could have been an opportunity to make something great. Instead, it’s just a second-rate reenactment.
While I’m still a little confused as to why Ellen Page agreed to be in this (beyond her role in the two X-Men films she did, she mostly stays away from studio films), it doesn’t mean she’s not effective in her role. You buy her reasons for wanting to do the experiments and you can see how she would easily get her fellow students to want in on it. It’s not groundbreaking work but she’s effective. The supporting cast which includes Diego Luna, James Norton, Kiersey Clemons, and Nina Dobrev also show a dedication to the script that it doesn’t deserve and they come out of this virtually unscathed. You just wish the film was better for all of them.
Despite my appreciation for the original, there really wasn’t a need for this to be remade. The original is very much of its time and seems like it should’ve been left there. I guess the upside is that the future was very bright for the stars of the original and maybe that could happen for the cast of the remake because they deserve better than a film that is clearly on life support.