Flatliners (1990)

Flatliners PosterTagline: Some lines shouldn’t be crossed.

Director: Joel Schumacher

Writer: Peter Filardi

Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt, Kimberly Scott, Joshua Rudoy, Benjamin Mouton, Aeryk Egan, Kesha Reed, Hope Davis, Jim Ortlieb, John Duda, Megan Stewart, Tressa Thomas, Gonzo Gonzalez, Afram Bill Williams, Deborah Thompson Duda

15 | 1hr 55min | Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi

Budget: $26.000.000 (estimated)


Flatliners could have been so much more. In fact, in the hands of someone like an early David Cronenberg, it may have been something rather special.

The movie’s concept is quite brilliant: four medical students set up an experimentation lab and induce death with the aim of gaining some kind of grasp on the nature of the afterlife. Led by the irrationally ambitious and wholly self-serving Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland), the group each take turns to venture into the purgatorial nether regions, their curiosity outweighing their fears as they descend into a battle of one-upmanship to see who can hold out the longest.

Joining Sutherland are are Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and William Baldwin – the kind of Brat Pack casting that immediately limits the movie’s macabre potential – and although the cast are undeniably talented, the scenarios are little more than trite morality plays with saccharine resolutions which smack of mainstream Hollywood. The result is a tepid quasi-horror, and one of the biggest blown opportunities of the decade.

Flatliners Cast

Just your average group of medical students.

The film was directed by a pre-Batman Joel Schumacher, and he displays considerable skill and technical ingenuity, particularly when capturing the surreal uncertainty of semi-death. Each character is haunted by a past discrepancy which threatens to bleed into reality, in spite of the fact that most of the people they have wronged are still very much alive and well, and from there the movie consists of ever expanding journeys into the somewhat familiar realms of the unknown, as our gang sweat over the possibility of their friends staying dead in a series of fairly dramatic  scenes.

Nelson and David (Bacon) are each tormented by the children they once bullied – yes, two of the four dilemmas are identical to one another – while slick Lothario Joe (Baldwin) is confronted by visions of the many women he blagged into bed and secretly filmed as additions to the ‘Joe Hurley Video Library’. Rachel (Roberts) is plagued by memories of her dead father, a war veteran who committed suicide under suspicious circumstances when she was very young. Filming events is Randy (Platt) a thespian-tongued neurotic whose dialogue is closer to Edgar Alan Poe’s works than anything resembling reality.

Flatliners Sutherland

Nelson would immediately regret not wearing a coat.

In the end, it is a lack of authenticity which sees the movie suffer. Yes, the plot is too preposterous to hold up as anything serious (how many people have been clinically dead for 13 minutes only to return fresh as a daisy without even a hint of brain damage?) but with a little more imagination we could have had something genuinely creepy and uniquely disturbing to sink our teeth into.

Unfortunately, this is nothing more than textbook Hollywood, a chance for atheists to find redemption and embrace religious absolutism, a chance for a philanderer to realise the value of true love, for a spoiled brat to make peace with her dead relative, and a whole bunch of other perfunctory resolutions which are borderline melodrama. 

Flatliners Bacon

Kevin Bacon stops to inspect his manicure.

This year will see the release of a Flatliners remake almost thirty years in the making. For anyone who saw the original and feels the way I do, you may have seen mark II as the opportunity for some actual redemption, a chance to take a concept with endless potential and transform it into the existential wonder it could have been. However, having seen the recent teaser trailers, let me be the first to say, it is always better to expect the worst. That way, you will never be disappointed.

Best Hallucination

Sitting in the back of a van following his first foray into the afterlife, a disbelieving Nelson stares into the bowels of a dark, smoke-strewn alley, as something vaguely familiar crawls out of the blackness. That something is a whining dog with crippled back legs, the very same that greeted him on the other side. Yes, this is as scary as the movie gets. Shame on you, Hollywood.

Most Absurd Moment

Scarred and wracked with nerves following a series of real-life beatings, Nelson is once again confronted by the hockey stick-wielding kid who has somehow made the leap from fantasy to reality. Luckily for him, he is then awoken by love rival and all round nice guy David, who quickly solves the mystery by pointing out that Nelson has actually been attacking himself with a hockey stick all along.

I suppose that’s slightly more plausible.

Most Absurd Dialogue

Fed up with his whining colleagues and their endless moral objections, Nelson has some choice words for the pussies riding his coattails.

Nelson Wright: You bring the equipment, I’ll bring my balls.

And they’ll bring their blindfolds.


rtape rtape rtape btape btape

A movie with infinite potential that is never allowed to rise above the realms of mediocrity, Flatliners is your average mainstream romp, a film which further suffers from a lack of ambition and rigid adherence to the Hollywood formula. Well made if that’s what you’re looking for, but for me, a case of the right concept in the wrong hands.

Cedric Smarts

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