It is increasingly difficult to remember a time in film where watching two people travel by car was not an anxiety-inducing moment of uncertainty. The trope of two people getting into an unexpected accident while in the middle of an otherwise mundane day has become as commonplace as the John everyman type who miraculously knows advanced combat skills when his or his family’s life depends on it. So when I tell you Flatliners opens with one top-billed cast member riding in a car with someone you’ve never heard of before you can probably guess what happens next.
Nine years later and the driver, Courtney (Ellen Page), is working in a hospital while finishing her degree and clearly continuing to deal with the incident from the top of the film. She soon encounters Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), an old friend and similarly overstressed student of medicine trying to deal with the reality of her chosen profession. Courtney asks her worried friend to help with an experiment, but she keeps details to a minimum.
An appearance from original Flatliners star Kiefer Sutherland brings Courtney and Sophia into a room alongside fellow medical students Ray (Diego Luna), Jamie (James Norton), and Marlo (Nina Dobrev). Sutherland serves as something of a Dr. House type, looming over the students with a lack of empathy and fierce presentation skills. He also has a distractingly silly wig, which in some small way reveals the first cracks in the film’s decidedly straight-faced approached to its story. His purpose is to show us how smart our characters are before and after the experiment without ever getting involved himself. It’s a nice nod to the first iteration of this story, but the role itself feels more than a bit below someone at Sutherland’s level.
Before long Courtney wrangles the familiar faces amongst the film’s cast to reveal her experiment at midnight in a basement under their school. For months Courtney has apparently been searching to find the part of the brain that relates to near death experiences. She is hoping to map it the way we map seizures, to understand exactly what happens at the moment of death, but the only way to find out is to monitor an event while it happens. In short, her friends must stop her heart long enough to monitor what happens, and when her body temperature reaches a certain level she must be resuscitated. Sophia is against the idea, but Jamie has no questions.
There is a brief moment when Sophia asks what they will do if Courtney dies. Jamie awkwardly replies that they will burn her body and develop an excuse. This is the only real moment in the film anyone hesitates to question the experiment. A person just asked to be killed for science and their friends, also doctors in training, agreed without hesitation. Maybe it’s ego or stupidity, perhaps a combination of both, but the lack of grounded concern immediately erases any sense of tension in the scene.
The moment of death, at least according to Flatliners, is something akin to a roller coaster ride through the world you once knew. While Courtney’s friends struggle to bring her back from the dead she travels around her city as if she were flying and walks through fields of energy composed entirely out of CGI. “I could see my own body,” she tells everyone upon her return.
Two things always happen at this point in movies where people play with things they don’t understand. First, the person who went first begins to show signs of change. Second, everyone else wants to try whatever the first person did without waiting to see if there are any long term side effects. Both things happen in Flatliners, further proving that senior level medical students are no smarter than the sex-crazed teens found in every other slasher film ever made.
As soon as the group decides to test Courtney’s experiment on one another things begin to take a turn for the cliché at breakneck speed. Blame it on bringing something back with them or simply going against the will of the universe, but by purposely defying the rules of existence the twenty-somethings at the center of Flatliners begin to experience strange encounters with forces they do not understand. It’s a cheap excuse for creepy imagery and familiar jump scares that teases unresolved issues in each individual’s life without requiring any setup or backstory. Some instances are more effective than others, but none are as intriguing as the experiment itself.
By the time the group is honest with one another about the inconsistencies in their experiences the damage is done. Reality begins to blur into a series of scares and unexplained behavior that steers the various plot threads toward an obvious endpoint. There is no pulse to anything that happens, including the beats of unexplained phenomena. It all simply happens, with each scene straining to engage the viewer in overwrought melodrama, and then it ends. Moments later, perhaps before you even leave the theater, you forget it even happened in the first place.
To their credit, the cast does what they can with the material given to them, and Rogue One favorite Diego Luna may be the best among them. His character, Ray, serves as the only thing tethering the rest of the plot to reality. If his performance fell short the whole movie may have collapsed, but thankfully he brings a certain gravity to every moment that keeps you curious when the story begins to lose steam.
The 1990 version of Flatliners may not be considered a classic by many, but it is high art when compared to Niels Arden Oplev’s remake. His direction is fine, as are the effects, but the story lacks any sense of tension or real drama. Every character abandons any sense of logic in the name of a quick thrill whose ramifications they never stop to consider, which makes no sense when compared to everything else we know of them. These are smart people doing dumb things not just once, but several times in a row for no obvious reason aside from having nothing better to do. I could not have cared less about the people in this film, and I have a very hard time believing anyone else will find cause to feel otherwise.