Flatliners is a remarkable film. Specifically, it’s remarkable in that it takes an intriguing and ripe concept and does almost nothing with it. Instead, it fulfills the promise of its title by offering up a boring, lifeless story, fills it with dull, unsympathetic characters, and then keeps the thrills to an absolute minimum.
Flatliners is, of course, a remake of the 1990 film of the same name. This version is directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Ellen Page plays Courtney, a young medical student who recruits several of her classmates (played by James Norton, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, and Kiersey Clemons) to kill her, map her post-mortem brainwaves, then bring her back to life. The point is to try and find out what happens to a person when they die.
Courtney sees some amazing things while she’s under, and when she’s back, things improve greatly for her. Her death seemingly opens up untapped potential in her brain. However, it also brings some kind of evil along, as she becomes haunted, quite literally, by a tragedy in her past.
It’s an interesting premise, and when the movie introduces it, Flatliners is actually kind of interesting. Then the next person flatlines and has a similar experience. Then another. And another. And while each experience is tailored to each individual character, the pattern never changes. Death, weird visions, resurrection, minor benefit, hauntings.
Once the characters realize that flatlining offers some personal benefits all of the humanitarian and scientific reasons get thrown out the window. No longer is flatlining about the greater good, it’s about being selfish. The characters die to get a rush, to gain an edge, or to just see for themselves. The shift basically derails the entire movie.
At the start, director Arden Oplev does his best to establish the characters. They’re cookie-cutter and basic (the rich guy, the shy guy, the pretty girl, the smart girl) but, in the right hands, characters like that can grow into something more. However, once they start flatlining only for themselves, there’s no reason to root for them. Why should I care about a character I know so little about who is doing something so reckless and stupid solely for his or her own gain?
That disconnect doesn’t help when Flatliners pivots from being a film about exploring the scary potential of death to a movie about ghosts. The hauntings become the entire focus of the film, and the flatlining is abandoned. No science is discussed or theories shared. Instead, Flatliners just becomes long scenes of the characters alone, exploring dark hallways or corners, and dark figures quickly moving across the frame behind them. These scenes are never scary, always predictable, and completely forgettable. A reason is established for the dark figures but there’s no connection made between them and flatlining. The second half of the film could have been preceded by basically anything.
Again, each of these hauntings is tailored to the individual characters. So seeing a particularly young girl might be scary to the character in the film, but as a viewer, it’s not actually scary to watch. Since the majority of Flatliners is more interested in being scary than anything else, the fact it’s not scary is a huge problem, to say the least.
But wait! Kiefer Sutherland, one of the stars of the original 1990 film, is in this movie! He must play some crucial role in teaching these new kids about flatlining, right? Is he part of some last minute twist to tie everything together? Unfortunately, no. In this remake, Sutherland plays what is believed to be an new character, the lead doctor of the hospital, who has absolutely no importance to the story. He exists only to yell at the kids and be a red herring for a non-existent, more interesting version of this film. (This is odd because, a few months ago, Sutherland explicitly said that he was the same character from the first movie but with a different name. However, that is not established in the film.)
Those are just a few examples of all the ways that Flatliners fails. It’s a taxing exercise in taking a cool concept and totally wasting it to make an elaborate, boring ghost story with a hilariously pointless ending. Without getting into specifics, the ending basically consists of the students reconciling the traumas of their past, so their deaths, resurrections, hauntings, etc., are reduced to a teaching moment where a bunch of med school students decide to try to be better doctors in the future. But wouldn’t better doctors be curious about what the hell they just went through?
Maybe in a good movie. But not Flatliners.