Flatliners (1990) / Sci Fi-Horror
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, nudity, some violent images, and language
Running time: 115 min.
Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Hope Davis
Small role: Ray Wise
Director: Joel Schumacher
Screenplay: Peter Filardi
Review published March 1, 2015
Flatliners is a difficult film to pigeonhole. It's sci-fi, but not really, and it's horror, but not really that either. It's more like a supernatural drama/thriller that dabbles with the question of the afterlife, or, at least, the depiction of it that we have gleaned from those who've had a near-death experience that have commonly reported experiencing something beyond the mundane before they were brought back to life.
The plot involves a group of fabulously coifed, twenty-something Chicago-based med students who decide to answer the question for themselves. In order to finally get the answer to the question of the afterlife experience they hear from their patients, they try to do a "controlled death", whereby one of them will have their heart stopped for a short period of time, while the others stand by to bring them back after a few minutes. The dangerous experiment is successful, but their "real world" experience begins to change, as the images they've seen from beyond now come back to haunt them in a very real way.
Just about any film that explores the question that all of us ponder about what happens to us after we die already starts with built-in intrigue, and while Flatliners eventually becomes a relatively standard 'Twilight Zone'-esque story about dealing with the guilt and remorse of one's past to resolve one's future, it's certainly a movie that stands out as quite different in style and, to some extent, subject matter than most anything that Hollywood had churned out before.
Lensed by acclaimed cinematographer Jan de Bont (The Hunt for Red October, Black Rain), the look of Flatliners is a standout, even if it doesn't always make logical sense. For instance, the hospital where the students work is rife with ornate religious imagery, and their own makeshift lab seems to be the only thing contained, with the exception of random debris, in a cavernous and seemingly abandoned gothic cathedral. As with many of Joel Schumacher's (The Lost Boys, Batman Forever) films, the lighting is dark, with emphasis on steam and neon colors, giving the 'real life' scenes a kind of haunting, nightmarish, even melancholy texture that works well when life and afterlife collide.
As with The Lost Boys, Schumacher is blessed with a solid and appealing cast. The key to the film's success was the casting of Julia Roberts, who quickly became an overnight sensation after her smash success in Pretty Woman earlier in the year. Also helping were the celeb headlines that she and co-star Kiefer Sutherland (Young Guns) had been dating, which also didn't hurt the movie's buzz prior to the eventual release. Sutherland is all raging ego and self-destructive narcissism in this film, which does give the movie the edge and impetus it needs to really drive forward the plot in ways that aren't always tidy or expected.
Bacon (Tremors) is quite good as the atheist who has to confront what he truly believes, Baldwin (Shattered Image) is perfectly cast as the ladies' man whose sex addiction has strayed into a perverse voyeurism that sees him film his conquests surreptitiously. Platt (Working Girl) is an odd choice, given his character doesn't figure in to the story very strongly, and he doesn't lend much box office appeal, but I like his inclusion; it's good to see that at least one person had trepidations about the flat-lining experience after seeing how it affects the others.
Despite being a mixed bag, reaching high but occasionally faltering, Flatliners emerges better to take in as an overall experience with an emphasis on psychological explorations than as a realistic portrayal of science, technology, or even fundamental philosophy. I admire the movie for its ambitiousness within the confines of a movie firmly entrenched within the Hollywood system, falling back to formula, but also diving into more important and erudite questions that it's not quite allowed to explore fully for the sake of dishing out an entertaining yarn.
©2015 Vince Leo