What happens when you die? Is there a bright light, a tunnel and you travel to your heavenly or hellacious destination? Or do you have your entire life flash before your eyes cinematically as you head towards the eternal judge St. Peter? There are few more profound questions in all of philosophy and religion than the mystery of life after death. No surprise, lots of films have been made that touch on this theme, including a lively 1990 horror thriller called Flatliners.
Starring a cast of up-and-coming actors including Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon and Julia Roberts, the original told the story of a group of medical students who became obsessed with the afterlife and willingly died for 1, 2, 3 even 4 or more minutes before their classmates resuscitated them so they could share their visions and experiences. Turned out that there were malevolent forces at work and each found themselves haunted by someone from their past, someone who they had wronged. Death, it appears, is about unresolved karma.
The just-released Flatliners remake sticks with the same basic story, medical students who willingly stop their hearts so they can pop into the afterlife, but turns out to be crippled by a lack of understanding of the original’s mythic story and one of the worst casts I’ve seen on the big screen in quite a while.
The film revolves around students struggling through the academic rigours of an Eastern medical school that sure looks like Harvard. Studious Courtney (Ellen Page) continues to be wracked by guilt over the accidental death of her younger sister, and is determined to reach out into the afterlife to apologize to her. She pulls frat boy Jamie (James Norton), hard working Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) and trust fund beauty Marlo (Nina Dobrev) into her experiments, and it’s not long before Ray (Diego Luna) joins them to help ensure that each is successfully revived.
It’s a good setup and we learn that each of the four main characters – Courtney, Jamie, Sophia and Marlo – have a great guilt in their past, someone that they’ve wronged. In a nod to the original, Sophia bullied and humiliated a classmate back in her high school years, though since it’s no longer 1990, this was cyberbullying, not physically abusing a child as happened in the original film. Each has karma to resolve and while their afterlife experiences and visions all start out quite interesting and beautiful, all eventually take a turn to the dark, becoming frightening and deeply troubling the characters.
And, of course, the visions don’t go away when they come back to life and get back to the daily grind of classes (with original Flatliners star Kiefer Sutherland making a guest appearance as Dr. Barry Wolfson) and rounds at a busy inner-city hospital. As each character opts to go under and “flatline” — with one notable exception — they too begin to see horrific visions and have their earlier misdeeds personified by spirits. Do those inevitably drive them to madness and suicide?
There’s a really interesting story somewhere in Flatliners, but the remake actually makes less sense, the karmic mistakes seem more trivial and the resolution is less satisfying than the original. And then there’s the acting. With the possible exception of Diego Luna, the actors are all atrocious in the film and when they should be drawing us into their fears, guilt and life journeys, they instead leave the viewer shrugging and always aware that it’s just playacting with expensive medical equipment and visual effects.
Indeed, at one point during the film, I leaned over to my companion and said “does this feel like a CW drama to you too?” because that’s the level of performance that director Niels Arden Oplev draws out of his cast. The original neatly placed the student’s afterlife research in a church under reconstruction, but the remake is also afraid to go near any religious or spiritual issues, a lack in a film with this theme.
This remake has those that come back from the afterlife gaining enhanced capabilities a la Limitless, but it’s so little explored that it clearly just serves as a plot device and nothing more. There’s also too much medical jargon. The production company clearly hired a doctor to get the drug names, medical conditions and other diagnostics accurate, but we don’t need to know any of that for the story to work and it serves as a distraction.
Flatliners is about afterlife experiences. After this dead on arrival remake, perhaps that’s appropriate. Could a different production team and better cast bring this back to life? Maybe, with some smart rewrites. For now, skip it. Otherwise you’ll be dying to leave by the end of the first reel.