The original 1990 version of Flatliners is a criminally underrated sci-fi thriller. It’s no masterpiece, nor would I call it Joel Schumacher’s best film, but it has a distinct style, borrowing some elements from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Whatever it was that worked about the original film was enough for Sony Pictures to revive this IP in the form of a legacy-quel simply titled Flatliners.
In this film, five medical students embark on a daring and dangerous experiment to gain insight into the mystery of what lies beyond the confines of life. The bold adventure begins when they trigger near-death experiences by stopping their hearts for short periods of time. As their trials become more perilous, each must confront the sins from their past while facing the paranormal consequences of journeying to the other side.
My feelings about this movie are complicated. On the one hand, I’m always game for a new science fiction film that mixes in elements of horror, even if it happens to be a story we’ve seen several times before. On the other hand, this was never going to attract the same audience as the original.
Let’s at least get this positive out of the way, the cast is stellar. I’ve been a fan of Ellen Page for a long time, at the very least since her breakout role in Juno. By no means is this her best performance, but what’s she’s good at is grounding her characters in real emotions. Even in a movie as unbelievable as this one in terms of the pseudo-science behind these controlled near-death experiences, Page comes off as the most believable.I find it unfortunate that she’s not as present throughout the film as the marketing would lead you to believe (more on that later).
As for the rest of the cast, this was my first real exposure to James Norton (who UK audiences may recognize from the shows Grantchester and Happy Valley). I like what he brings to the table. None of these new characters are 1:1 replacements for the characters in the original, but if I had to describe Norton, he’s riding that same wavelength as Kevin Bacon and William Baldwin in terms of charisma and some cherry-picked story beats. The rest of the cast, comprised of Diego Luna, Kiersey Clemons, and Nina Dobrev, are fantastic. In general, I commend this film for casting a more diverse ensemble in terms of both gender and ethnicity.
That’s the end of my pure positives. The rest of this review is a fight between which changes from the original worked, and which ones didn’t make it out alive. Normally when it comes to remakes, reboots, or sequels, I prefer to judge the movie on its own merits, but this is the very special case for which I, unfortunately, have to blame the marketing.
*Potential spoilers ahead*
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 Ben Ripley pissed away all the good will from the surprising twist by ripping off the climax from the original beat for beat. It’s about as insulting to fans of the original as the last 15 minutes of Star Trek: Into Darkness was for fans of Wrath of Khan. This was particularly pronounced because, as I mentioned earlier, there are no 1:1 comparisons between the characters of the two films. I’m disappointed that the writer of Source Code couldn’t have given us a more satisfying resolution.
Whoever was in charge of marketing this film needs to be fired immediately. Ever since it was announced, nobody could figure out definitively whether or not this version of Flatliners was a sequel or a remake/reboot. Nothing shown in the trailers revealed any connection to the original outside of the line “it’s a good day to die.” Meanwhile, I learned today that there was a scene deleted from the final product that did in fact bridge the gap between the two films. According to director Niels Arden Oplev, it was removed because there was no room for that scene within the story they were trying to tell. That just makes me wonder what the point of casting Kiefer Sutherland was in the first place if he wasn’t going to reprise his role from the original.
Finally, the biggest turn-off for fans of the original is this new film’s apparent lack of a unique production design. One word that can certainly describe this film is “cold.” There’s nothing here that helps to make this stand out visually. They also try to double down on the horror elements, but that doesn’t really work either. The scares come off as overly generic, save for a few moments here and there.
I’m really bummed about Flatliners (2017), especially given the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera. It’s not a total waste of time, and there are a few redeeming qualities, but overall it’s not quite enough for me to rate this one “fresh.”