Synopsis – Five medical students, obsessed by what lies beyond the confines of life, embark on a daring experiment: by stopping their hearts for short periods, each triggers a near-death experience – giving them a firsthand account of the afterlife.
My Take – I have been clear about my opinions on remakes before, in the sense how I am not exactly in favor of them, but if it means a decent filmmaker is going to try & use scantily explored ideas to generate something better, I’m all for it. The original 1990 film, which ended up grossing $61 million on its $23 million budget, was no masterpiece, nor would I call it director Joel Schumacher’s best film, but it has a distinct style, a set of certain ambitions, and of course a young cast comprising of then relatively unknowns, like Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt and Kevin Bacon, who were game for a Frankenstein-cum-Elm-Street premise. As the overall film had many issues of its own, I could see why Sony Pictures or actor Michael Douglas would decide to revive this sequel/reboot potential with an aim to improve upon the ideas explored in that film. However, unfortunately this updated version does nothing visually to distinguish itself, as it squanders a potentially fascinating premise and lacks any form of vision or vitality. It seemed like director Niels Arden Oplev (the original Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and screenwriter Ben Ripley (Source Code) clearly had no enthusiasm for the remake, and ended up using its excellent young cast to deliver a tension devoid flat liner of a film. The story follows Courtney (Ellen Page), a medical student, who due to a tragic loss nine years ago is obsessed to know what happens after we die. In an attempt to record what happens to the brain after a person flat-lines, she enlists the help of her fellow classmates Jamie (James Norton) and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons). They start experimenting in their hospital’s basement in what amounts to assisted temporary suicide, in attempts to answer questions about the afterlife and what is seen in those brief moments.
Originally discouraged with Courtney’s intentions, other fellow students, Ray (Diego Luna) and Marlo (Nina Dobrev) also quickly become involved, when things don’t go according to plan. One by one, they each have their heart stopped for two to three minutes, getting a brief glimpse of the afterlife before being resuscitated. At first, the experience has a drug like effect, inspiring a euphoric feeling that lingers for hours and somehow rebooting dormant memories and abilities. The aftereffects soon take a considerably darker turn, however, with all four of the flat liners (Ray declines to die, participating only as an observer/assistant) stalked by people they’ve wronged, in what may or may not be hallucinations. Much like in the original, the characters begin to realize the consequences of travelling to the other side. It is during these moments, when the film fully embraces its dark material; this update is at its best. The music adds to the already well developed spooky atmosphere, and the performances of the cast further heighten the sense of dread. When characters travel to the other side, the use of light, sound and motion are used wonderfully to create a fantastic experience, the world beyond often visualized as been very beautiful, the music also adding to the magic of the occasion. After returning from their near-death experiences, characters are miraculously gifted with greater intellect, an idea that is never elaborated upon. Like the original, characters find themselves pursued by their ‘sins’, though the secrets the characters have been harboring are rarely provided the required depth. Despite flirting briefly with the supernatural, the film pulls on this string only once, which was quite disappointing, the film rarely attempting to stray from the original. Though the original shone a flashlight on bullying, racism, sexism and betrayal, the remake is often centered on the competitiveness of the medical profession, which joins each of the characters together. As the film progresses, the confrontation between the characters and their ‘sins’ becomes progressively worse, been far more malicious than what was experienced in the original. Though the film appears to be set for an exciting climax, it is here that the film appears to run out of steam, and instead rushes towards a happy ending that does not do the film justice. Moreover, despite the characters been perceived as studious and intelligent, they rarely attempt to use science, or their training, to find a solution to the problems they face, instead behaving much like the stereotypes found in other genre films. The idea of doctors being capable of flat lining people and bringing them back to life, being able to have conversations about what death is like and going through hallucinations as a side effect is quite interesting; However, this version of the film becomes a supernatural thriller by the time it reaches its third act, making for a very confusing film, due to the fact that there is clearly no physical entity that could ever accomplish these things. The trailers portray something being unleashed, but the film does a poor job explaining what it is. A spirit? A demon? Their minds breaking from all the stress? The answer is left for you to decipher, but don’t expect much in terms of the evil taking any form. This not only robs the film of potential scares, but also makes the story confusing and more towards a drama than anything else.
While this gets points for making you think, I still would have liked a little more imagination into my monster, or whatever it was. This version of this concept just strips away anything that was exciting or intriguing about the original film. Not to compare and contrast, but idea of the original definitely benefits from a more subdued and subtle approach to things. There’s a twist halfway through the film that I thought was pretty ballsy involving one of the main protagonists. This helped to give this film more stakes than the original. One of my problems with the original film is that, for a story that dealt with death, it never felt like any of the main characters were in real danger of losing their lives permanently. Sure, they got hurt because they were haunted by the sins of their past but, in the end, everyone made it out okay. That was clearly not the case this time around, and I genuinely did not see that coming. However, what I didn’t like was how writer Ripley pissed away all the good will from the surprising twist by ripping off the climax from the original beat for beat. Even though he demonstrated some ingenuity with Source Code, but he also fails to solve this premise’s fundamental problem. Creating necessary tension during the flat lining scenes requires that the characters nearly die, permanently; every single time, there’s frantic medical activity and shouts of “It isn’t working!” Yet Jamie is unaccountably eager to have his heart stopped after watching Courtney barely make it back, and Marlo insists that she’s next right after Jamie almost winds up in the morgue, and so on. What we see of the ostensible afterlife—just ordinary depopulated locations on Earth, made mildly strange via smeared neon or overexposure—doesn’t justify all this mortal recklessness. Neither do the lame “powers” the flat liners acquire after dying, which involve slow-motion shots of club dancing and—hilariously—the others looking on in wonder at Courtney playing the piano (unremarkably), marveling that she can now play again. It’s not as if she’d broken her hands. She’d just forgotten? And now she remembers? Or something? It seems director Oplev too just shot this film in a way through this shortlist, unable to imbue any frame with a sense of wonder, tension or passion. Character development too is weak within this film, so-much-so that surnames are not provided, we learn next to nothing about Marlo, Jamie and Ray; three of the five protagonists, making them seem distanced and unimportant. Not only are they distanced, but their reasoning behind their actions is nearly always loose and unsupported by common sense or “flat lining” aspects. Even worse, not only are they under-developed, they’re uninteresting and unbelievable; Ray being the most believable; yet still mildly unlikeable. For some reason Kiefer Sutherland also shows up here. In interviews, the actor suggested that he’s playing the same character as he did in Schumacher’s film, which is ridiculous as he has literally three scenes where he offers nothing (including his name) to show his or the film’s connection to the original. Ellen Page definitely deserves better! Despite the film’s failings, she is a treat to watch. Because of her performance, you care about her plight as her past begins to terrorize her. Page’s character is of the few (if not the only one) to have legitimate motivations, allowing you to root for her if you so please. The rest of the cast comprised of Diego Luna, Kiersey Clemons, James Norton and Nina Dobrev, are good too in their respective roles. On the whole, ‘Flatliners’ is a shoddy and bland remake that fails to generate anything novel from the original.
Directed – Niels Arden Oplev
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 110 minutes