Flatliners (1990) Review

Nineties with a capital 9, stripped of the rose-coloured shroud of nostalgia, Joel Schumacher’s morbid thriller emphasises the ‘flat’ in “Flatliners”.

Inspired by the near-death experiences of patients, a  group of brilliant, ambitious medical students decide to probe beyond the veil to establish empirically what happens when you die. But as each of them becomes haunted by what they saw, they must find a way to make peace with their experiences.

Stuffed with Brat Pack actors, Schumacher brings the same campily gothic aesthetic to “Flatliners” that he would later dial all the way up to 11 in “Batman & Robin”. Unfortunately, the ludicrously grandiose set design and general post-industrial atmosphere simply serve to undermine any sense of realism whatsoever, leaving the flights of fantasy with nothing to ground them. Everything is lit with the subtlety of a sledgehammer in stark orange or bright blue to give you a ready indicator as to whether something good or bad is happening, which is handy because your attention will wander as much as the plot does. Even if you’re not paying attention, though, you’ll still notice some of the clumsiest on screen set adjustments to accommodate the forthcoming camera movement you’ll ever see.

Essentially a high-concept morality play about atoning for past (or sometimes present) sins, it’s all terribly vague and vaguely terrible. Kiefer Sutherland – who despite being a poor medical student apparently lives in a giant mansion from a high-class fragrance commercial – hides possibly the worst secret of the bunch. But then again they’re all phenomenally bad scientists, withholding vital information from each other, making a mockery of the pretence they’re invested in scientific research rather than a low-wattage Twilight Zone clip show. Despite raising some interesting philosophical, metaphysical and theological questions, the film doesn’t care to address them at all, preferring to focus on the banal, small stories of the characters.

All flash and very little bang, the only flatline that sticks in the mind was my level of interest in the self-indulgent narcissistic guilt trips of these unlikeable characters, except for Sutherland’s Norman, whose level of guilt is so far removed from the context of the others that his ultimate redemption feels grotesque. If people are calling the new remake a disappointment, I can’t help but wonder if they’re setting the original’s bar low enough?