By Jim Slotek
A group of people who should know better find themselves eager for the cold embrace of death. But enough about the poor souls who bought tickets to Flatliners.
You expect the worst when a studio refuses any advance looks at a feature film – not to critics nor to contest winners. But perverse kudos to those involved for exceeding our expectations, with a remake nobody asked for of a horror film that was only okay to begin with.
The 1990 original was about a group of med school students who took thrill rides in the Afterlife by stopping and restarting their hearts. It had a compelling premise, a solid cast (including Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts) and prosaic execution. The latter was marked by director Joel Schumacher’s vision of the Afterlife that, if memory serves, had the artistic panache of an ‘80s music video.
And yet, it now stands as a masterpiece next to a remarkable misfire from Blumhouse Productions that is not just bad, it’s surprisingly, stupifyingly boring. Taking trips to “the other side” is what that company does (tellingly, a trailer for the next Insidious movie ran beforehand, with more actual scares in two minutes than in Flatliners’ entire hour and 48).
Coming off like a bunch of bad ideas badly stitched together, this film by Niels Arden Oplev (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) opens with a car accident that profoundly affects the life of Courtney (Ellen Page).
Exactly how profoundly we discover years later (or a few minutes in screen time) when she’s letting her med school pals in on a secret hospital-beneath-their-hospital that exists only in case of emergency. That’s right. A crowded hospital with a shortage of beds has a full ward of empty ones, equipped with gleaming, new CAT scanners and MRIs that are never-to-be-used except in case of nuclear attack by the North Koreans.
But this secret subterranean hospital is where Courtney plans to do brain scans of the temporarily deceased, so she can see where the Afterlife exists in the brain. It is a testament to the script’s awkward pacing that she manages to convince fellow medicos Jamie (James Norton) and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) that stopping her heart is a good idea, in about the time it takes to convince a group of people that they should order pizza instead of Chinese food.
Soon the overachieving Marlo (Nina Dobrev) and principled good guy Ray (Diego Luna) are in on the still-not-really-properly-explained scheme. One motivation is that people awake from their near-death experience with (unexplained) super-charged brains.
One downside, on the other hand, is that they begin having visions of people who want to kill them.
In fact, the trailer for Flatliners suggests that things follow them from the other side. This is a falsehood. The plot offers a karmic explanation for what goes on that defies logic (despite Ray’s plaintive insistence that, “There must be a scientific explanation for this!”)
Even the jump-out-at-you scares that are Blumhouse’s trademark are badly timed and telegraphed.
And oh yeah, Kiefer Sutherland put in what must have been a day of filming and cashed a cheque playing Nelson, the interns’ tough taskmaster head surgeon. Though he has the same name as the guy he played in the original, this is not a callback. There doesn’t appear to be any connection, nor is he involved in the plot other than to squint at his interns suspiciously.
Flatliners is, in the end, a movie where very little happens. It suffers from almost morbid rigidity.
Flatliners. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Starring Ellen Page, James Norton and Diego Luna. Opens in theatres nationwide Sept. 29.