31 Days of Hell: Flatliners (1990) - Reviewed

The experience of death and what comes beyond the spectrum of life is a topic that will stay alive forever as long as film directors continue to generate movies about it.  

From the early inception of cinema with Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death to Adrian Lyne’s film Jacob’s Ladder, the concept of death on film as a first-person sensory cinematic experience is as old as the medium itself.  Equally timeless is the notion of the near-death experience or cheating death and living to tell about it, notably given national attention with Dr. Raymond Moody’s nonfiction book Life After Life

Science fiction stories in film inevitably expanded the dialogue about the near death experience with the idea of manufacturing one in a safe and controlled environment, a question posed in Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm and formed the basis for Joel Schumacher’s 1990 psychedelic science fiction horror film Flatliners.  Featuring an all-star cast with Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt, the film concerns five arrogant medical students who under the campus’ radar secretly begin conducting medical experiments to induce near-death experiences in one another and the consequences which follow. 

Like Ken Russell’s Altered States it’s an intriguing concept for a science fiction horror film which gradually takes a backseat to audiovisual sensory overload.  Part Faustian mad-scientist chiller/part deux of Schumacher’s own The Lost Boys in a visual sense, the main focus centers around Sutherland and Bacon who give fine performances as the conflicted but egotistical doctors high on playing God.  Unlike Schumacher’s vampire fairy-tale take on The Goonies, however, the look of Flatliners by brilliant production designer Eugenio Zanetti and cinematography by future Twister director Jan De Bont seemed a bit too fantastical for this gang of outlaw medical students.  I also found myself not particularly emotionally invested in these mostly paper-thin characters, making their tightrope walk with eternity not very compelling.

The lead in for Flatliners’ premise with nerve wracked doctors going through the process of medically inducing death and resuscitation is the stuff tense and harrowing horror films are made of.  Unfortunately it quickly grows redundant and what these cocky students ultimately find on the other side is nowhere near as frightening or satisfying as the ordeal it took to get there, boiling down to not much more than unfinished business.  This is unmistakably a Schumacher effort, warts and all.  Visually the production design is overwhelming but you get the feeling Schumacher overcompensates with the look of his films in general.  There’s a brilliant and fascinating concept in here but judging from the lukewarm reception to the recently released remake currently in theaters, my guess is that a great film version of it has yet to be made.  At least it was great to look at.


- Andrew Kotwicki