FLATLINERS Review: Today Wasn’t A Good Day To Die

The medical horror remake made Jacob think "I miss Joel Schumacher".

Let's be totally honest: Flatliners (’90) is by no means a classic. Sure, the cast – Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon – are young and pretty. The cinematography by Jan de Bont looks lovely, bringing a haunted texture to the tale of med students offing and then reviving themselves to try and scientifically chart life after death. And while he’s become easy to diss post-Batman Forever/Batman & Robin (‘95/’97), Joel Schumacher has always been a director you could rely on to have the most fun behind the camera. These elements all combine to transform Peter Filardi’s rather dopey script into a pretty decent midnight movie, however elevated in hindsight by the pedigree of all involved. 

In the end, Schumacher’s Flatliners is still a Hollywood picture that features Billy Baldwin in a rather prominent role, so it’s certainly no sacred text. Had Sony wanted to make a perfectly passable version for the Millennial crowd, they could’ve hired a wacko B-Movie savant like Jaume Collet-Serra and really had a piece of inspired madness on their hands. Instead, the project went to a self-serious Dane (Niels Arden Oplev), who transforms Ben Ripley’s update of Filardi’s story (the original writer still retains a "Story By" credit, due to fidelity) into the cinematic equivalent of a Christian rock record, leaning on boring morality play hijinks instead of atmospheric scares. While this nuevo Flatliners is certainly watchable, it feels like every cast member was instructed to recite their lines as if they were attending a funeral, all stoic responsibility in the face of a central spook show conceit just this side of a lost Final Destination (’00) sequel. 

To be fair, Oplev at least assembled a collection of actors who’re attractive and committed. Ellen Page (Juno) is always a welcome presence, even if Ripley’s script barely gifts her motivation to spearhead this foray into pseudo-science beyond a fatal car accident that claimed the life of her sister (which really doesn’t even make sense either, now that it’s put down on paper, as she doesn't go chasing after the girl or anything). Diego Luna (Blood Father) rejects the call, citing his belief in medicine over hokey spirituality, even though his Brooklyn manbun-meets-samurai topknot has us knowing this guy's definitely used the word chi at least once in his lifetime. James Norton (some BBC dramas you’ve never watched) looks like a Dennis Reynolds stand-in, square-chinned and attempting to sleep with anything not possessing a penis. Kiersey Clemons (Neighbors 2) stresses well as the overachiever whose mother makes her live at home, despite being twenty-five. Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries) is good looking in that “horror movie heroine” way. They’re all overseen by Sutherland, who sports a white mullet, a limp, and is distracting because you know at least one dude in the theater is going to lean over and whisper “he was in Flatliners” to their girlfriend. 

The afterlife sequences are pretty much exactly what you'd expect – Christian notions of ascension, causing the camera to soar over an anonymous American city, before diving inside a church and heat-seeking straight toward Christ’s white, chiseled mug. Creepy images from each’s past start to seep into their waking hours, as they keep themselves under longer and longer. Before long, we’re submerged in a full blown game of atoning for past sins, once the Reaper follows them into the realm of the living, none too pleased that they’ve cheated His scythe. Just like the original, the students discover that they have to pay penance for the horrible things they’ve done in order for this specter of destruction to leave them be. Their “sins” are all slight variations on the first film’s – which include everything from bullying, to abortion, to straight up accidental murder – but without Schumacher or de Bont behind the lens (Eric Kress’ DV work is horrid and littered with motion trails), there’s a visual flatness that lacks playfulness and combines with the heightened sense of rectitude to resemble a DTV faith-based movie. If you subbed Kirk Cameron in for Ellen Page, the whole thing would actually make more sense in terms of an intended audience. 

The fact that we couldn’t get a half-decent update of Flatliners is a massive bummer, as the concept is so rife with possibility for truly bizarre nightmare imagery. Why anyone would simply lean into a routine set of Blumhouse-style haunted house scares (which is really all this offers during the supernatural heavy final reel) is a total head-scratcher. In a way, this new Flatliners almost resembles a pilot for a new CW series; ER crossed with The X-Files (or however one would want to try and pitch this in an elevator). It’s a movie filled with epic notions that are explored in the most contained ways possible. But even if you didn’t want to go big, you could at least go real weird with it, and the screenwriter, producers and director are just content to cash their iteration in like a bored drunk at an Atlantic City chip teller. Just put this one in the can and toss it in the $5 bargain bin at Wal-Mart, where the other spirits of bad cinema's past are waiting to be resurrected by viewers who don’t know any better.