Flatliners (1990) Revisited

Being stuck at home under lockdown makes this an opportune time to indulge myself with another of my passions; cinema! My wife used to work in a video store, back when they were a viable business. She was required to know about films so as to advise the customers, which meant that she brought a selection of videos home for us to watch together. Flatliners was one of those movies.

I can remember that at the time this was considered quite a controversial film. Directed by Joel Schumacher and starring some of the big names of their then young day, Keifer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, and William Baldwin.

The first thing that I noticed was that it looked like a rock video. Prince could have made it. Lots of night shots with illuminated vapour rising into the air and permanently wet streets. The music was awful. Very tinny, very much stuck in its time.

Of course, all of the cast were talented but troubled young people. Each had a different reason, well, perhaps not Randy Steckle, played by Oliver Platt. Of the group he is the only one always siding with caution and trying to keep things on an even keel, thinking about his future. He fails miserably of course, but he does try. Nelson Wright (Keifer Sutherland), Rachel Mannus (Julia Roberts), David Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), and Joe Hurley (William Baldwin), all have their reasons for risking their future careers in the medical world to discover if there is anything after death.

Despite their claims to being scientists their collective approach to documenting their experiment is decidedly amateurish, they use Joe Hurley’s video camera that he more normally employs to record himself having sex with a whole string of young women. That is it. No note taking. No analysis. No real evidence gathering of any meaningful kind, despite Nelson’s insistence that the experiment is going to push back the boundaries of science and lead to a better understanding of death. And there’s the rub, this film is not about death at all, it is about guilt and atonement.

Nelson is the first to undergo a controlled death experience. His friends ‘kill’ him and then use standard resuscitation techniques to bring him back after he been allowed to be dead for a few minutes. All this is done in what appears to be an abandoned church that is undergoing some kind of building work. Fortunately, the security is lax enough to allow them to bring in all kinds of medical equipment without anyone noticing. When Nelson does return to life it seems that he has brought some kind of malevolent spirit back with him. This adds some tension to the proceedings as Nelson suffers a series of quite violent attacks. He himself, however, is distracted by his friends, each taking turns to die and remain dead for progressively longer.

To be honest there is very little tension as it has already become obvious that they have the collective ability to resuscitate each other. There is a bit of shouting and swearing each time, but it is merely histrionics. None of the experiences add anything to our limited understanding of death. Each one is personal to the individual who experiences it and seems to have nothing to do with actually dying, just a particular event in their former life. The premise of the movie is never fulfilled.

Time has not been kind to Flatliners. The visual style is very dated and too similar to the music videos that were changing the industry back then. The acting is okay but the script does not challenge the actors. It feels like a cheat to be honest, very much limited style over substance.


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