Updated: Feb 5, 2020
What happens when we die? Is there an afterlife? Does our brain continue working after our heart stops beating? All of these questions and more are not answered in the horror movie Flatliners!
To be fair, it does ask those questions, which is more than a lot of films do. It just does so with no intention of exploring them. It only raises them to set up a series of jump scares, none of which work because the story is never clear about what is actually happening to its characters.
The setup is promising and the first forty-five minutes or so of its 106 minute running time (not including the end credits) are actually okay. Med student Courtney (Ellen Page, she will always be Juno to me) recruits some of her fellow students (James Norton, Nina Dobrev (from CW’s The Vampire Diaries), Diego Luna (co-star of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and Kiersey Clemons) to assist her in a dangerous experiment. She wants them to stop her heart (or, as they call it, “flatlining”) for one minute so she can see what brain activity looks like after you die.
When she returns from the dead, it’s like she is a whole new person. She sees the world in a new way, becomes the top student and effortlessly plays Debussy’s Clair de Lune after having not played piano in twelve years. Her response encourages the others to try flatlining as well. However, it is not all fun and classical music. Soon, they begin experiencing negative side-effects, as they each start seeing visions of people they have wronged. It is possible they are being haunted by their own guilt.
I say “it is possible,” not just because I’m trying to be vague, but also because I have no idea what the heck is happening to them. The characters all seem to have theories, but there is no satisfying explanation. That is not inherently a problem, especially in horror. The problem is that there is no consistency to how they are being haunted. Sometimes it seems physical and sometimes it seems like it is all in their heads. No single explanation can make sense of the plot. And the tone and atmosphere are not even close to being effective enough to make up for that confusion.
Flatliners is a remake of a 1990 Joel Schumacher film of the same name. That film is most notable for its cast of rising stars: Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland (who has a small role in the remake), William Baldwin and Oliver Platt. I am not sure that anyone from this film will go on to the same kind of fame that some of those names did, but it is still a pretty solid cast. They just happened to sign up for a movie that does not give them much of a chance to showcase their skills.
Flatliners (based on the 1990 screenplay written by Peter Filardi) was written by Ben Ripley (writer of the enjoyable 2011 sci-fi film Source Code) and directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Why Flatliners was suddenly calling out to be remade after 27 years, I have no idea. I don’t think Ripley and Oplev know either. It does not feel like either of them had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish with this movie. They started with an intriguing idea and executed it using all the laziest horror clichés imaginable. If people are still talking about Flatliners in another 27 years, this is certainly not the version they will be referring to.
1½ out of 5
Ellen Page as Courtney
James Norton as Jamie
Nina Dobrev as Marlo
Diego Luna as Ray
Kiersey Clemons as Sophia
Kiefer Sutherland as Dr. Wolfson
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
Screenplay by Ben Ripley