1990 was a big year for films that dealt with the afterlife, with Flatliners, Ghost, and Jacobs Ladder all coming out around the same time. Whilst all three films deal with the notion of the afterlife, and how people deal with the weight of their sins and actions in this world, all three take a very different approach to it. Flatliners is perhaps the most grounded, and most scientific of the three, presenting a scenario that feels quite plausible.
The story follows five medical students in Chicago who come together when one of their number, Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland) proposes an experiment to look into what happens after you die. He’s come up with a procedure to slowly lower the body’s key functions, resulting in medically induced death. After one minute dead, the person would be revived, and be able to tell them if there is indeed anything after you die.
Nelson convinces four of his peers, David (Kevin Bacon), Rachel (Julia Roberts), Joe (William Baldwin), and Randy (Oliver Platt), to be there as he flatlines, and to bring him back. Whilst they’re at first unsure whether it’s a good idea, they eventually come around, all of them interested in learning if there is anything after death. When the procedure goes well, and Nelson is brought back from the dead, he tells them of a strange vision he saw, and the others begin to vie to be the next ones to go through it. However, when those who have flatlined begin to see strange, almost disturbing visions of those they have wronged in their lives they start to question if they did see the afterlife, or if they’re being haunted by the actions of their own past and the guilt they carry with them.
Flatliners is a very Gothic looking film. From the opening moments where the camera passes slowly across statues to the secretive experiments taking place inside huge, cathedral-like buildings, there’s a sense of the classic horror about a film that’s relatively light on horror, and that I’d personally struggle to put in the category of horror. I’d heard about the film for years, how it was a spooky, psychological horror film, but upon finally seeing it I think perhaps I’ve been mis-sold on the concept. This isn’t a horror film, the characters in this movie aren’t haunted by spirits from the beyond, instead, it’s a character driven examination of human nature and the complexity of guilt.
The characters of Flatliners are looking to find answers to one of the ultimate questions, to the unanswerable question: is there life after death? For many, this is something they feel the need to believe in, and there’s a huge desire to believe in an afterlife, in something beyond this existence, even if they don’t subscribe to any particular religion. The fear of death being the end, of your consciousness simply ceasing to be, is one that I think near everyone has, and if you were able to provide a definitive answer to that question it would change the world forever. The character even acknowledge this in the film, stating that it’s the last great frontier of discovery left for humanity.
But this film sidesteps giving us a definitive answer, and works all the better for it. It allows the events you see to be interpreted as confirmation that there is indeed something after death, but also posits the possibility that it’s simply the last moments of electrical activity in your brain bringing up memories, making you think about your regrets and pains in your last moments. Because of this it’s hard to know what the characters are going through, whether they’re being haunted by literal shades from the afterlife, or if they’re going through extreme PTSD from the trauma of literally dying. I wasn’t expecting this level of complexity and ambiguity from the film, and it made for a pleasant surprise to what I was expecting.
The central cast are a great group of actors, and whilst most of them have headlined their own films before and since, they work really well in an ensemble, and complement each other well. Some of them are more likeable than others; William Baldwin plays a literal sex offender in the film, so it can sometimes be hard to root for him, and I was actually happy to see him get his eventual comeuppance. Their chemistry is good though, and as the film goes on you really believe that these are five people that become intrinsically linked through the traumatic events of the movie.
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The new 4K release from Arrow Video gives audiences a great new version of the film, with a great visual presentation that really pops on the screen thanks to the cinematography. There’s also a full length audio commentary from critics Bryan Reesman and Max Evry, as well as a series of new interviews with key members of the crew. Whilst the extras are interesting there’s not a huge amount here beyond interviews to give you much of an insight into the film, although the interviews we do have are pretty informative.
If you’re looking to add Flatliners to your collection this is a decent release, and one that presents the movie in a beautiful way. But if you’re not a huge fan and have only a passing interest it may not have enough on offer for you.
Flatliners is out on 4K UHD on 1st August from Arrow Video.