Figure 1 – Julia Roberts in FLATLINERS (1990)

I’ve decided on a name for my rating widget (¤); I’ve decided to call it a “flibbet.” (No idea why, actually. Just came to me.)

When Flatliners came out in 1990, Julia Roberts was just twenty-three years old; Kiefer Sutherland was twenty-four. Of the five main stars of this movie, all but Oliver Platt (30) and Kevin Bacon (32) were part of a “showbiz” family. (Julia’s brother Chris was already in movies; William was part of the whole Baldwin family; and Kiefer’s dad Donald was extremely well known.) While it’s safe to say that this movie didn’t hurt anyone’s career, it can’t be said to have launched any, either—Roberts would have her breakout movie (Pretty Woman) in 1991; her salary would zoom from $300K for this movie to $500K for Pretty Woman—and thereafter, $1.5 million to $40 million or so per film. While none of the other stars were to achieve these financial heights, each one has had a pretty solid career since then.

It’s safe to say that none of the stars of the new one will see a career like Roberts’ own; Ellen Page’s net worth is estimated to be $14 million, which is less than Roberts can command for a single movie. Page herself is a pretty solid mid-list actor, as are the other stars of the new movie, including Diego Luna and Nina Dobrev. Relative newcomer Kiersey Clemons may be poised for an uptick in her career; she’s slated to appear as Iris West in the new Flash movie coming soon from the DC Movie Universe.

Figure 2 – Flatliners 1990 Cast–Roberts, Platt, Sutherland, Baldwin, Bacon

*HERE THERE BE SPOILERS, ARR!* Since the 1990 version is 28 years old this year—and the new one has little new to offer, I feel confident that any reveals aren’t really “spoilers” in the sense that they spoil any surprises. For my money, there are no surprises in either movie. On to the first round! Oh, and in case you didn’t know, “Flatlining” is deliberately causing brain death (a “flatline” on an electroencephalogram [EEG]) with the intention of bringing the “dead” person back to life through medical/technical means.

At an unnamed Eastern American medical college/university (played by Loyola University in the movie), four medical students (they do call each other “doctor,” although I believe you’re not allowed to do that outside school until you graduate) are lining up to try an experiment proposed by Nelson Wright (Sutherland), to see if there is any truth to the idea that people who come back from being clinically dead have seen light at the end of tunnels, floating over their bodies, etc., while they were “dead.” His best friend David Labraccio (Bacon) has just been suspended for prescribing medication on his own, and is planning to leave med. School, although Nelson pleads with him to assist or participate, as he’s the most advanced of all the five students. They all think Nelson is crazy for trying this, but reluctantly agree; Joe Hurley (Baldwin) brings his (grainy black-and-white) video camera to make a record of the experience.

There were very sensitive recording EEGs available in 1990, so I’m not sure why they thought a grainy b/w video camera would make an accurate record of the event; I would have hooked him up to see if electrical traces could be timed to any memories he brought back. But maybe that’s just me.

When they have difficulty reviving him after a minute and a half or so (they later compete to see who can stay “dead” longest), David unexpectedly comes in and saves the day; he couldn’t bear the thought of losing his friend, stupid and crazy as he thinks his friend is. Eventually, David and the rest take part in the experiment too, as Nelson reports he did have visions while he was clinically dead, even though he didn’t report what they actually were.

There’s a catch, though. All of the students who participated in this experiment have guilty secrets from their pasts: Nelson was part of a group that bullied a boy named Billy Mahoney (Joshua Rudoy); and Nelson keeps seeing Billy, still a young boy in a red hoodie, around campus. Even worse, Billy is beating Nelson up! (After their first encounter, Nelson has to put five stitches in his own face!) Rachel (Roberts) is seeing her father, who committed suicide when she was a child; she believes she is guilty of causing her father’s death. Similarly, Joe—who’s been seducing every coed he can get his hooks into despite being engaged, and videotaping the sexual encounters—is seeing what appear to be tapes of his “encounters” on various TVs and monitors, etc.. David is seeing a young African-American girl, Winnie (Kesha Reed), who he was responsible for bullying.

Long story, gets longer with every repetition of Nelson’s, David’s, Joe’s, and Rachel’s visions… we get the point that they’re being haunted by things they feel guilty for. And we get it much earlier than director Joel Schumacher thinks, I believe. They begin atoning for their pasts—when possible… how do you apologize to a dead boy?—and the after-death visions begin to go away. I think we’re supposed to be afraid for the protagonists, especially David, but what we get is (or at least I do) a fair amount of exasperation when the protagonists take so darned long to figure it all out. The performances are fine; Pratt doesn’t really have a lot to do; Baldwin may be the weakest of the five when it comes to bringing a character to life. All he’s required to do is act concupiscient and then guilty when caught; he does that much well. Roberts is, I feel, still getting into her stride as an actor; she’s young and very pretty, and I think Schumacher didn’t require a lot more of her. The two actors who carry the movie—with a fair amount of scenery-chewing, are Sutherland and Bacon. Kevin is generally more understated than Kiefer, though.

Plotwise, it’s a thin premise stretched out way too long by endless repetitions of the characters’ “sins,” and no firm conclusion is ever reached by Schumacher except maybe that “atonement” and “forgiveness” will save the day even if you’re guilty of bullying, racism, sexism and so on. At the end of the day, I remain unconvinced of anything resembling life after death from this film. I’d give it a 3-banger ¤¤¤ of flibbets.

Figure 3 -Flatliners (2017) poster–Dobrev, Norton, Page, Luna, Clemons

And now we come to the modern version, which attempts to position itself as a horror movie as well as an inquiry into the afterlife.

It begins when Courtney (Ellen Page) is driving somewhere with her younger sister; she is texting while driving and is brought back to awareness by her sister’s yell when she almost runs into a bulldozer which is blocking a bridge she’s about to cross. Braking and turning the wheel too sharply, she overturns the car, which runs off the road and sinks in a river. She is the only survivor; her kid sister drowns.

Nine years later she is a medical student at a (different) medical university, along with students Ray (Diego Luna), Marlo (Nina Dobrev), Jamie (James Norton), and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons). Their medical advisor—a nod to the first movie—is a Dr. Barry Wolfson (Kiefer Sutherland). One day Courtney notices an anomaly in a very sophisticaed EEG/brain scan which might signify brain activity even after brain death. Same old same-old; we’ve seen this stuff before, at least if we saw the first Flatliners.

Although this is NOT directed by Schumacher, and as far as I noticed, no credit was given to the first movie in the credits of this one, it’s obviously a remake. (In fact, IMDB says the story was by Peter Filardi, the writer of the original one, though the screenplay was by Ben Ripley.)

All the characters are analogs of characters from the first one. Courtney, for example, feels guilt for the death of a family member, like Rachel (Roberts), who thought she was responsible for the death of her father. Ray doesn’t take part in flatlining experiments, like Randy Steckle (Platt). Marlo, like Nelson (Sutherland), is haunted by a death she accidentally caused. Jamie, like Joe Hurley (Baldwin), is a womanizer; and Sophia is the David (Bacon) analog.

This time, the technology is much cooler; we now have high-tech brain scans that can deliver real-time results on a monitor. So we, the audience, can watch as even after brain death little electrical signals flare in colour on a detailed computer model of the various brains. Also, the “afterdeath” experiences are way cooler too; there are lights and better CGI visuals than were available to Schumacher. Also, after Courtney came back, she apparently has total recall now; she can remember books she has read years before, piano pieces she hasn’t played for 12 years, and so on. Which makes the others want to go under, especially Sophia, who’s in danger of failing med school.

Also, they’re going for the shocks; scary CGI things happen to Courtney—it appears that the dead sister is out to get her and **SPOILER** indeed, the sister pushes her off her balcony to her death. This is where the supernatural portion comes in; Sophia sees a glowing Courtney urging her to save herself by forgiving herself.

Some of the effects were very well done in this movie; the acting was on a par with the first one; I like Ellen Page’s fresh face (even though she’s now 30, she appears much younger), and I’ve liked Diego Luna’s acting for a couple of years now. Plus newcomer (to me, at least) Clemons has a bit of a spark that sets her out from her acting compatriots. But at the end of this day, there’s nothing really new about this movie, plus I still haven’t seen anything that would convince me about “afterlife.”

The most reasonable explanation I’ve seen, scientifically, is random firing from dying neurons, combined with the brain shutting down. As for “common things” being seen, like white lights at the end of tunnels, I need to hear that people who are not raised in North America, with Christian underpinnings, have seen the same things. Like, Amazonian Indians, or Inuits from the Arctic, or Indigenous Australians. Then I might begin to wonder. I’ll give this movie a minus-3 flibbets: ¤¤¤-

(As John Shirley—author of Doyle After Death and more than a dozen other books—recently noted (to his regret; we have differing religious views), I don’t believe in an afterlife. However, as I told him, I’m willing to be convinced by reasonable argument. To me there are, so far, no “reasonable” arguments or explanations for post-life survival.)

LAST WORDS: Oh, yeah, I forgot. Both movies use the tagline “Some lines are not meant to be crossed,” and both movies include the line “Today is a good day to die”!

Next week will be my review of the Jan/Feb. F&SF (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction); I apologize in advance for the lateness. It’s been a weird couple of months, but no excuses.

Comments? Comment here, or on Facebook. You don’t have to agree with me to comment; remember, my opinion is only my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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