Film Review: Flatliners

As daffy as the original and a lot less fresh.
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How many Do Not Resuscitate jokes will be made about Flatliners, Hollywood's latest attempt to bring a long-forgotten hit back from the dead for an audience raised on reheated cultural leftovers? A few, no doubt. But at least this remake (not a sequel, as previously reported) can in theory cite a reason for its existence: Joel Schumacher's 1990 original, cast with some of the hottest up-and-coming stars of its day (and also William Baldwin), glossed its actors up with an overheated visual style; but it displayed less visual imagination in its expressionistic near-death sequences, leaving room for improvement by a thoughtful filmmaker with today's technology at hand.

But instead of improving on the original's visualization of the liminal state between life and death, director Niels Arden Oplev turns the conceit into just another excuse for rote haunting, making this Flatliners often indistinguishable from its 2017 thriller peers. Hustled into theatres with plenty of advertising and no critics' screening, it clearly hopes to recoup some cash before audiences tweet their disappointment. As with the protagonists who stop their heartbeats and hope to be revived before serious brain damage occurs, every minute will count.

Of the surprisingly few ways this film strays from the original, one is its casting, which reflects—sort of—the realities of today's med school: Now we have a touch of racial diversity (but no actors of Asian origin) and a three-to-two ratio of women to men. This time around, the experiment's instigator is not a white guy but a white woman, Ellen Page's Courtney. But rather than make her a quest-for-glory type like Kiefer Sutherland in Schumacher's film, she's a Julia Roberts-style softie, haunted by memories of dead loved ones and just hoping to learn they're okay in the afterlife.

(About Sutherland: He has a small role here as a gray-haired, limping med-school prof, but isn't playing the same character. Don't hold your breath waiting for him to become essential to the plot.)

After some fairly cursory introductions, the film follows Courtney down to Sublevel C of the training hospital where she's a student. It's quite a downgrade from the ludicrously art-directed room where 1990's flatlining experiments took place, but at least this time the students have an MRI rig handy to scan their brains in real time.

With Courtney are Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) and Jamie (James Norton, this version's obligatory douche). They reluctantly agree to help Courtney explore the afterlife by inducing her death, then reviving her after 60 seconds. But they suddenly forget their training once she's a corpse, and must enlist last-minute help from Diego Luna's Ray, this picture's stand-in for Kevin Bacon's longhaired, clear-eyed medical prodigy. Ray's rival Marlo (Nina Dobrev), whom the script conveniently identifies as the "hot" one in the cast, arrives shortly after he does.

Courtney's experiences in limbo are a little less prosaic than those in the first film, but they're hardly 2001-grade moments of awe. They're not meant to be, of course: In Flatliners, getting close to death is just a chance to revisit something terrible you did in the past. Before she realizes she's going to be haunted, though, Courtney enjoys a couple of days of hyper-intelligence and indefatigable energy—which, of course, means that her achievement-driven peers want to kill themselves as soon as possible, and do it for even longer. One by one, they do (with an exception). But these subsequent experiments aren't followed by epiphanies; they're just the occasion for some celebratory partying and PG-13 sex. (Actually, these sex scenes would probably fly in a PG-rated pic. Maybe it's the whole death-is-fun thing that earned the harsher rating.)

Then comes the payback, with each student suffering either a series of supernatural visitations or an extended hallucination. Their crimes range from Internet shaming to negligent homicide, but the punishment is the same: The culprit has to be in a 21st-century horror film that grows duller by the minute.

Forcing each character to endure pretty much the same kind of haunted-by-guilt episode individually burns up plenty of screen time without compounding the pic's scares. It also allows the viewer's increasingly idle mind to wonder why, nearly three decades later, the plot's semi-intriguing premise couldn't be put to less daffy use. Now as then, dying is just another path to the kind of amends-making every twelve-stepper has to do. If you don't get to see God or at least one hell of a light show, what's the point?

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