STARRING: Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton and Kiefer Sutherland
WRITTEN BY: Ben Ripley
DIRECTED BY: Neils Arden Oplev
Flatliners (2017) is a remake of Flatliners (1990), a movie about the terrible things that happen after you resurrect something. That’s your first sign this was a bad idea.
You can see why they thought it would work. In the 90s, there was a plethora of thrillers hitting theatres every week: some psychological, some crime, some erotic. They were mostly forgettable, with only a few being elevated to cult status. Flatliners was in the middle of the pack; not prestigious like The Silence of the Lambs or ingrained in the pop culture psyche like Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct, but still recognizable and still with its fans. It’s seemingly perfect for a remake: plenty of people remember the original, but not with a fervent following that will automatically hate a new adaptation. And thus, Flatliners (2017) is born.
The plot of the new movie is identical to the plot of the old: young, attractive medical students begin experimenting with briefly stopping their hearts to experience the afterlife before being revived. They come back to life with new knowledge and increased smarts, and also something dark and ominous.
This time around, the impossibly beautiful students are Ellen Page, Nina Dobrev, Diego Luna, Kiersey Clemons and James Norton, with the original’s Kiefer Sutherland inexplicably playing their teacher at the hospital. He is not playing the adult version of his previous character but instead seems to be a wink at fans of the original — if this film could bother to wink. Flatliners is a ridiculous concept that is played entirely straight, hitting every pre-conceived beat you could imagine. There is no room for fun in this movie, nor is there room for exploring any new ground, or even creating any decent scares.
Courtney (Ellen Page) is obsessed with the idea of the afterlife after a car crash nine years ago killed her little sister. The preoccupation with the crash and guilt over texting and driving is what causes her to want to explore the afterlife, by briefly dying while an imaging system scans her brain.
One new, interesting idea the film presents is quickly dropped — the idea that millennials are literally killing themselves for work. Sofia (Kiersey Clemons) mentions a student who committed suicide last year, and she is crying over textbooks because she studies too hard. The final push Courtney gives to get Sofia and Jamie (James Norton) on board is that they’ll be breaking new ground and could get any residency they want. After Courtney comes back from the dead with a photographic memory that impresses their teacher, the rest of the friends want to take part and get smarter. It’s like Bradley Cooper’s Limitless or Scarlett Johannson’s Lucy – they’ve tapped into a new part of their brain, and now they’re geniuses.
Kind of. That’s also quickly abandoned, and the effects of flatlining start to be akin to some kind of adrenaline junkie fix. Courtney and Jamie run through the streets in the snow, shrieking and having fun. Marlo (Nina Dobrev) turns into a one-woman Italian Job, speeding through the streets in her Mini Cooper, while Sofia parties hard and hooks up with Jamie. In fact, a lot of partying and hooking up happens right after the flatlining, almost like it’s a drug. The fact that five beautiful, young and mostly rich kids need to start killing themselves before they start drinking and making out with each other is a little bizarre.
I’ve never been to medical school but I have seen Grey’s Anatomy, so I thought that was all hot doctors did anyway? The parties themselves are also oddly sanitized — it’s usually just the five of them in someone’s apartment, and the one time they do venture out to a ‘real’ club it’s clear the screenwriters have never been clubbing, ever: it’s just a platform in front of the lake, with no visible alcohol, packed with partygoers in business casual attire next to a parking lot full of luxury vehicles. Seriously, who are these people?
Ray (Diego Luna) is the only one who doesn’t flatline, and is basically the only smart character. He’s the only one who answers questions in class and can solve tough medical cases before the flatlining begins (Courtney and Jamie only excel afterward), and is the one the others call for help when the flatlining starts to go wrong. He’s also significantly older than the rest of the cast and has turned to med school after a career as a firefighter, and is the only one who’s working class instead of filthy rich. Once again, this is an idea the film could have explored— are they just bored, adventure seeking rich kids? Is it the “participation trophy” generation struggling to make it, looking for a shortcut to greatness instead of working their way up like Ray? — but it didn’t.
Instead, the movie seems to be about your past sins coming back to haunt you, although that takes about half the runtime to occur. The results also vary: Courtney and Marlo have actual skeletons in their closets, and the ghosts of people they’ve lost start popping up in their daily lives. Jamie and Sofia, on the other hand, were just bad people when they were younger, and the guilt of their actions is what’s attacking them. It gives any scares or suspense much less urgency; Courtney might actually be seeing the ghost of her sister, but Jamie can’t be seeing a ghost of someone who’s still living.
Despite being about the afterlife, the movie could not be less interested in entertaining the idea that there are ghosts, demons or anything supernatural happening. The suggestion that they brought something back is instantly scoffed at, but everyone easily settles on the explanation that it’s just the manifestation of their guilt and they can get rid of it by atoning for their sins. “You have to forgive yourself,” Courtney says, but she’s the only one who ever seemed like she hadn’t forgiven herself in the first place.
The rest never brought up or alluded to any dark secrets in their past, and they all only tried to set things right once they thought they were going to die. Sofia tracks down the girl she bullied in high school and says “I need you to accept my apology.” For the record, that’s not how you apologize when you truly feel bad for what you’ve done, that’s how you apologize when you want everyone to just move on already. Sounds like she’d already forgiven herself.
Flatliners is a by-the-numbers remake that hits all the necessary beats but doesn’t make a case for its own existence. As the characters of the film eventually figure out, some things should just stay dead.
Flatliners is now on general release. Let us know what you thought of the movie.