Written by: Peter Filardi (story), Ben Ripley (screenplay)
Directed by: Niels Arden Oplev
Starring: Ellen Page, Diego Luna, and Nina Dobrev
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
You haven't lived until you've died.
A title like Flatliners was destined to be remade, if only because time and Hollywood’s sheer force of will ensures that nothing can stay dead, save perhaps for irony itself. Yes, even a film that intones against the folly of unnecessary revivals in the face of death has been resuscitated for no discernable reason. It’s not that remaking Flatliners is some kind of sacrilege; doing so without any real sense of purpose or drive behind it is, however, highly suspect—if not downright perplexing. When given the opportunity to improve upon this popular (but certainly not untouchable) film, everyone involved completely whiffs, leaving you wondering what the point it is.
This is quite possibly the most frustrating type of redux: one that shows the faintest hint of promise in its willingness to diverge from the original until it decides to just follow limply in its footsteps. Initially, only the skeletal outline of Flatliners is in place here: once again, we’re dealing with a set of five medical students who set out to discover the science behind death. Names and circumstances have changed, however, as ringleader Courtney (Ellen Page) is haunted by memories of a younger sister who died in a car accident years earlier. Now obsessed with the afterlife, she recruits four friends to induce her death and revive her so she can confirm something—anything—lies in the beyond.
She comes away with the knowledge that she certainly experiences something: not only does she have visions of a supernatural plane, but she also returns to life with a renewed capacity for knowledge. Suddenly, she’s playing the piano as if she hadn’t quit her lessons a decade earlier and conjuring up obscure quotes and facts from books that aren’t even on this semester’s syllabus. Sensing that she’s onto something, her colleagues are suddenly eager to take the plunge themselves so they can keep up with the insane rat race that is medical school, only to discover that doing so leaves them literally haunted by past misdeeds and sins.
While that’s obviously very much just the original film’s plot—albeit with the particulars of said misdeeds now altered—there’s a brief glimmer of hope that this Flatliners might have something more up its sleeve. Something about watching these five students trip over each other in an effort to keep up with their work leads you to believe it might be commenting on the perils of nonstop work and the hypercompetitive post-grad landscape. Here you have these kids essentially killing themselves to gain an advantage, something that seems to capture millennial angst (you might recall that the original film appealed to Gen X anxieties of being forgotten in the wake of Baby Boomers, lest you think I’m stretching here).
Unfortunately, this is a bit of stretch, as this new dimension is unceremoniously dropped from the proceedings once all but one of the students undergoes the experiment. It’s at this point that Flatliners is content to regurgitate the original’s horror routine, though it is fair to say it’s a bit more overtly horror-tinged this time out. The scares are pretty rote, largely consisting off unsettling noises and fleeting glimpses of various ghouls and specters, giving it more of a spook-a-blast vibe than the original. You’ll even see it drag out the old “girl gets dragged off into darkness” gag that feels straight out of 2009. Not the most inspired choices of direction, but at least it is a change of sorts to complement the different characters, who aren’t direct copies of their predecessors in the original.
While you can map similar motivations and backstories from the first film, these are by and large completely different characters, or at least cut-outs of characters. Courtney is ostensibly the lead, infused with a quiet confidence by Page, who brings the appropriate spark of life whenever she’s on-screen. Everyone surrounding her fills out shallow roles well enough to at least distinguish themselves as discernible clichés: Jamie (James Norton) is the group’s obligatory horndog haunted by memories of an old girlfriend who may or may not have had an abortion; Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) is the group’s overworked worrywart, hounded by an overbearing mother who’s pushed her since grade school; Marlo (Nina Dobrev) is a multi-talented athlete, musician, and star medical student harboring a secret guilt about a dead patient; and Ray (Diego Luna) is one of the few of this bunch that’s actually worth a damn. Continuing the Flatliners tradition of male characters sporting incredible hair, he’s the group’s conscience and warns them to stop before things go too far.
Let’s be honest: few casts have a chance of living up to the incredible amount of charisma that carried the original film to its cult classic status. This bunch does the best they can before they’re undercut by a weak, scattershot script that haphazardly darts around to figure out where this premise is supposed to go beyond its initial hook. (Spoilers ahead.) Admittedly, the original shared this problem, which is exactly why one could see some potential in a revisit; however, this go-round is even clumsier because it relies on a mid-movie shock tactic that turns everything on its head when Courtney perishes unexpectedly. At first, it’s another promising development that shows the film isn’t afraid to deviate from the original’s shadow; by the end, however, it gives the impression that Ellen Page just wasn’t feeling this shit and asked if they could kindly write her out and let her go on her merry way.
Doing so redirects the audience’s sympathy towards the supporting characters, most of whom are irredeemably awful. Where most of the original characters (save for William Baldwin’s predatory Lothario) could at least make the excuse that they were children when they fucked up, most of these were basically grown-ass adults. In what feels like an outrageous, extreme upgrade of the bullying found in the original, we learn that Sophia once hacked a rival classmate’s phone and spread nude pictures to sink her prospects; meanwhile, it turns out Jamie pulled a fucking Mike Damone on a high-school ex, stranding her with the decision to abort his unwanted child. Taking the cake, however, is Marlo, who recently killed a patient via a reckless, negligent diagnosis and then covered it up.
I could forgive this if Flatliners at least had the good sense to off these folks horribly; instead, it insists on their atonement and redemption, eventually asking the audience to invest in a relationship that has no chemistry or depth. If there’s a more misguided set of plot choices and character developments in a movie for the rest of the year, I’ll be shocked. As the last third of Flatliners unfolded, I was gobsmacked that anyone involved thought anyone would really give a damn about a climax involving characters that become protagonists by default. I certainly will not be shocked to eventually learn that this film was cut up and reconstructed at the behest of a studio looking to just shuffle this thing out of the door by any means necessary—so much of the final act especially has the whiff of everyone just running out the clock to the credits, logic or story structure be damned.
Combine this with Niels Arden Oplev’s uninspired direction, and you’re left with a disappointing dud. Say what you want about Joel Schumacher—he might have been something of a studio hired gun, but he at least managed to put his stamp on those slickly produced pop objects. You can at least feel a pulse in his Flatliners; this one has one that faintly registers before Oplev’s chops are diluted and sanitized, the latest casualty of Hollywood’s alarming tendency to reduce promising foreign talents to total anonymity on bland, obligatory products.
Even the presence of original star Kiefer Sutherland—starring here as the students’ surly professor in all of 3 scenes—can’t rescue it, no matter how much you really want it to. I kept waiting for him to interject himself and reveal that this Flatliners is actually a stealth sequel, only to be let down and befuddled by what turns out to be a distracting cameo that only serves to remind me that I could be watching a superior version of this movie instead.
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