Medical students begin to explore the realm of near death experiences, hoping for insights. Each has their heart stopped and is revived. They begin having flashes of walking nightmares from their childhood, reflecting sins they committed or had committed against them. The experiences continue to intensify, and they begin to be physically beaten by their visions as they try and go deeper into the death experience to find a cure.
eyelights: the central conceit. the cast. the visual style of the picture.
eyesores: the abstract science and metaphysics. the lagging last quarter.
“Philosophy failed. Religion failed. Now it’s up to the physical sciences.”
If you could take a quick peek into the afterlife, would you? Of course you would. But what if this meant risking your life in the process? Would you do it then? Not so sure now, huh? And what if it meant risking your sanity as well? Would you even consider, let alone go ahead with, glimpsing into the beyond? Now, what if fame and fortune were the trade-offs for taking these risks? Would it be worth the gamble to you?
‘Flatliners’ is an existentialist supernatural medical thriller (yeah, you read that right). ‘Flatliners’ is about a handful of medical students who decide to explore the afterlife by subjecting each other to near-death experiences – or, as they call it, flatlining. In their quest for knowledge and fame, they also discover that there is more to the other side than they anticipated – and mysterious things begin to happen to each of them.
I first saw this picture in cinemas back in the day, in 1990. At the time, I had really enjoyed the concept and its cast, which is mostly comprised of then-minor stars Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt. Over the years, I enjoyed going back to it; even though it’s dated, it still holds up nicely now – for pseudo-science with a metaphysical bent, that is.
I was looking for something slightly spooky, but not too spooky, to watch with my gf, who isn’t into horror films. Since I’d been envisioning watching ‘Coma’ and ‘Patrick’, which were both medical thrillers, I decided to dig up ‘Flatliners’ and give it a go; I figured that they would play very well as a group, and it would give me a chance to revisit this old favourite from my youth; it had been a while since I last watched it.
I had forgotten how little there was to it: there are the half-dozen or so experiments that the group do, some interpersonal stuff, and then the psychological impact that the experiments have on each character , but that’s about it. There are some thrills, but they’re mostly focused on the dangerous nature of what they’re doing as well as the weird and sometimes spooky things that happen as a result of playing in God’s sandbox.
If anything, the picture is about the individuals, and their incarnations, a core strength without which the picture would have little else to fall back on:
- Kiefer Sutherland plays Nelson Wright, the medical student who initiates the experiments – out of curiosity, but mostly for the fame, for the reputation he would garner. He’s a bit reckless, all too focused on his goal, in such a way that he doesn’t pay attention to the risks so much. He’s also controlling and keeps his cards close to his chest; he doesn’t want anyone else to steal his thunder. Because of this, he doesn’t let on that he’s been experiencing hallucinations after his first attempt to see/go into the afterlife.
- Kevin Bacon plays David Labraccio, a cocky medical genius who keeps getting into trouble for crossing the line. He’s been expelled from school for an incident, but he’s still one of the best – hence why Nelson asks for his help. Aside from being exceptionally gifted, he’s also one of the most ethical of the lot and has a tendency to try to do what he considers to be the right thing – no matter what the consequences are. He would eventually figure out why all the participants are plagued with strange visions.
- Julia Roberts (in one of her first starring roles, and just after ‘Pretty Woman’), plays Rachel Mannus. There’s not much to her aside from the fact that she’s defiant and gutsy, but the guys always find ways to go on the table next – not out of gallantry, mostly out of recklessness. At the time, she and Sutherland were an item, which makes it both strange and refreshing that their characters aren’t; often these pictures end up being vehicles for couples to get unsightly on screen. Not so here.
- William Baldwin is Joe Hurley, a sleazy womanizer who’s engaged to get married but has been sleeping with every woman he can sink his teeth into on the side. He’s been videotaping these encounters without prior consent, which will end up coming back to haunt him in many ways. The character doesn’t feel that fleshed out, more like a caricature, but we get what he’s about. Why he was asked to join the group is beyond me, however, since he doesn’t display any skill or professionalism that warrants him being the so-called cream of the crop.
- Oliver Platt is Randy Steckle, a by-the-book type who is alarmed over most of the goings on during these experiments. If anything, he’s there to remind the group -and audiences- of the risks that they are all taking. In fact, he won’t even try flatlining – which leaves one person not impeded by nightmares. Platt is pretty decent here – he commands the screen just enough to make up for Sutherland and Bacon, who are natural magnets.
Between the lot of them, we get plenty of interpersonal complications, and that helps to move the picture along quite nicely. The fact they’re all ambitious young students not only fuels the exchanges and conflicts, but it also helps to justify that they would even partake in an experiment this dangerous – and which could have them expelled. I’d say it was a pretty excellent piece of casting, William Baldwin excepted.
The film is fun because it also poses a number of ethical questions along the way, such as a doctor’s responsibility as caregiver versus the legal liabilities, knowingly partaking in activities that endangers the life of one of the participants, the quest for knowledge versus the means to that end, our responsibility to others versus ourselves, the choices we make in our lives daily and their impact on others, …etc.
It’s not at all dealt with in a particularly deep fashion (it’s a Hollywood thriller by Joel Schumacher, after all), but it still stirs up enough questions that the more reflective audiences will be left with some questions and no small amount of discussion material. I actually like the things it’s trying to bring up and address – my only issue is in the way that they do it, which tends to be a slightly on the fluffy side.
Another notable aspect of the picture is its visual style. This is one of those movies that is rooted deep in the mid-’80s, using huge sets that are pretty but don’t make sense contextually (like the area that the group uses for their nighttime experiments), and which is lit for effect more than anything else (case-in-point, the neon lighting in the middle of a deserted alley, on aged architecture – who installed those there, exactly?).
It certainly doesn’t go for realism, but if one watches ‘Flatliners’ for what it is, a slick Hollywood thrillride, and accepts that style is on equal footing as substance, then it goes does down easy enough. The picture looks pretty good, but it won’t in any way shape or form convince anyone of its authenticity: How can Nathan afford such a massive apartment? How is that campus space not being used (…and yet still has electricity)?
In the end, though, ‘Flatliners’ is a pretty enjoyable movie. It’s not grand cinema, but it’s entertaining enough, and clever enough to get by. Perhaps I’m slightly biased at this point (Lord knows that nostalgia can play tricks on one’s judgement!), but I was pleasantly surprised by how decent it still is, over two decades later.
“Hey, Dave! What if it works?”
As for the question of whether or not I would take a peek into the afterlife, if given the chance…? I suppose that, if there were no risk, I’d be as curious as the next person and would love to have an understanding of what awaits on the other side. But, faced with the possibility of death or mental torment in so doing, I would pass; no amount of fame or fortune is worth the risk.
Anyway, I suspect that I’ll get a peek at it soon enough, whether I want to or not. Don’t forget to say “hi” if you ever see me there…
Date of viewing: September 2, 2013