September 29th, 2017
Peter Filardi and Ben Ripley
Niels Arden Oplev
Ellen Page, Diego Luna, and Nina Dobrev
This film barely has a pulse.
Is Flatliners 2017 a remake, reboot, or a sequel? It depends on who you ask. When Kiefer Sutherland discussed his cameo with Metro last August, he stated: “I play a professor at the medical university. It is never stated but it will probably be very clearly understood that I’m the same character I was in the original ‘Flatliners’ but that I have changed my name and I’ve done some things to move on from the experiments that we were doing in the original film.” So, Flatliners 2017 is a sequel, right? Not necessarily.
Related Article: Kiefer Sutherland Confirms “Flatliners” Reboot Actually a Sequel
Sutherland’s assertion that it will “be very clearly understood that I’m the same character” is false. For starters, the audience didn’t even seem to notice him; Sutherland’s character appears immediately but didn’t elicit a single gasp, clap, or utterance of surprised pleasure (not one that I could detect, at least). Yes, he the actor looks very different, but (more importantly) the character is not obviously Nelson from Flatliners 1990; are we to believe that the brash, arrogant med-student who pushed boundaries in pursuit of scientific knowledge has become a humorless, hard-ass instructor who revels in insulting his students? And if Dr. Barry Wolfson (Sutherland’s character name as listed in the credits) really is Nelson from 1990, why is he oblivious to what his proteges are up to in the basement? Wouldn’t he be especially perceptive to these activities, and wouldn’t he have some very specific, tremendously useful advice to impart? Sutherland’s inclusion is a waste, as it neither stokes nostalgia nor contributes to the narrative in any meaningful way. Truthfully, the actor’s participation feels like a gimmick, one designed to distract from the relatively vapid characters and recycled tropes that comprise the bulk of director Niels Arden Oplev’s film.
Official Synopsis: Five medical students embark on a daring and dangerous experiment to gain insight into the mystery of what lies beyond the confines of life. The bold adventure begins when they trigger near-death experiences by stopping their hearts for short periods of time. As their trials become more perilous, each must confront the sins from their past while facing the paranormal consequences of journeying to the other side.
There are two ways to review a remake/reboot: 1 is in a vacuum, as though the original never existed and the remake is a standalone meant to be judged on its own merits. The second method is the more knee-jerk response of comparing how well a reboot communicates or improves on the film that inspired it. I found it almost impossible to judge 2017’s Flatliners in a vacuum—especially with the inclusion of Sutherland. Stuck in this mindset, I couldn’t help but amass a mental list of ways the original excels. While it’s a more tangential way of evaluating a work of cinema, this evaluation highlights the strength of 1990’s Flatliners without revealing anything spoilerish relating to the new one.
1990s Flatliners has incredible pacing; it kicks off with an incredible line (“Today’s a good day to die.”) and the action begins immediately. We meet the characters as Nelson (Sutherland) explains his goals regarding “flatlining”, illustrating Joel Schumacher’s skills at both directing and storytelling. 2017’s Flatliners begins with a flashback, then spends half the first act on set-up; had the characters been less two-dimensional, this exposition might have drawn viewers in. Instead, the film flounders from the start, wasting time establishing connections and relationships that could just as easily been made apparent through action vs exposition; more show, less tell.
Another aspect that made 1990’s Flatliners immediately evocative is the aesthetic it establishes from the get-go. Over 90% of that film takes place at night, and scenes that do take place during daylight hours are covered in an oppressive gloom. It gave the entire experience a distinctly Autumn sheen, invoking the spirit of Halloween and conveying a palpable chill; the film surrounds you with its New England Gothic moodiness, an unsettling atmosphere that pokes holes in the clinical comfort of established facts. 2017’s Flatliners loses this essential sense of geography and aesthetic. The University no longer feels like an isolated Ivy League enclave; rather it’s a state of the art metropolitan medical facility. When the vibe is so familiar/mundane/every-day-normal, it’s impossible to be set off-kilter by the unknown or the uncanny.
Thematically, 2017’s Flatliners breaks no new ground; it’s the exact same obsessive pursuit for answers regarding the afterlife, perpetrated by a bunch of too-smart-for-their-own-good academic mavericks. The rules don’t change; the film fails to up the ante on any pre-established mythology, nor does it dare to deliver anything original or innovative. It was obviously a deliberate decision, one that was likely based on stoking nostalgia for the original Flatliners as opposed to generating excitement for innovation. Perhaps the film intended to make a statement about adrenaline-fueled, jaded Millennials who can’t find a thrill without pushing their mortal coils to the precipice; unfortunately, the characters of 2017’s Flatliners are generic recreations of the original cast whose motivations are identical (and therefore, uninspired).
1990’s Flatliners isn’t an incredible film in retrospect; it’s really cheesy when you think about it, filled with Judeo-Christian concepts and imagery, not to mention well-trod examinations of karma and retribution. The reason it was such an entertaining experience has everything to do with the talented, post-Brat Pack actors in the original’s ensemble. Between Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt, there was enough talent to fill the soundstage. While Ellen Page is convincing and emotive in Flatliners 2017, her supporting cast is two-dimensional and flat; there’s no kinetic chemistry, no strains of potential love triangles or professional competitions. When Andy Muschietti was given the opportunity to remake IT (also originally released in 1990), he broke from established convention and made a heavy, R-Rated movie with an emphasis on terror. Conversely, Niels Arden Oplev seems too timid to venture outside the original’s pre-established parameters, and the result is a watered-down reimagining that only serves to highlight the strength of its inspiration.
Related Article: According to Science, Dying is Exactly as Scary as You Think It Is!
Bottom Line: The fact that Sony released Flatliners without allowing any advanced reviews, or even a Thursday Night premiere, means the studio has little faith in the film’s ability to perform. And while it’s not as bad as I expected, it’s little more than your average cookie-cutter horror offering, sugar-free genre bubblegum. 1990’s Flatliners wasn’t hardcore, but it was ballsy as hell compared to this remake/reboot/sequel/whatever.