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What to Watch: Finding Second Life in ‘Flatliners’ (1990)

Revisiting this Julia Roberts sci-fi 90s classic.

Flatliners is a 1990 thriller about four medical students who experiment with “near death” experiences that awaken dark secrets of their pasts.

One of the greater challenges of being human is to accept our own mortality, that without fail, we are all going to die. It’s a hard truth, but as Captain Picard famously said, “It’s our mortality that defines us. It’s part of the truth of our existence.” Doesn’t make it any easier though, does it? Roy Batty probably sums it up better. “I want more life, f*cker.” Ditto.

Movies have played with themes of immortality often, not the least of which is the vampire genre, but few have taken the subject to more scientific levels … well, not counting the Frankenstein franchise of course because that’s obviously super scientific. Duh. Enter 1990’s Flatliners, a strange kind of hyper-stylized vision of reality that sees a group of attractive medical students do the seemingly impossible – come back from the dead. Does it have any life the second time around? Let’s take a look.

Flatliners
Flatliners, 1990 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

THE STORY: Directed by Joel Schumacher, the film follows Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland), a cocky, trenchcoat-wearing med student who convinces four others, Joe Hurley (William Baldwin), Randy Steckle (Oliver Platt), Dave Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), and Rachel Manus (Julia Roberts) to kill him. Well, more accurately, medically induce death and after one minute revive him so he can experience what lies beyond death. But yeah. Kill him.

What he sees though on his trip through the big sleep is not the white tunnel and angels we’ve all heard so much about but a kind of rewind afterlife that has him seeing a boy he knew when he was young, a kid he used to bully. He doesn’t tell the others what he saw, only that there is something there. Prompted by his success, the others take their turns, each adding more time and each experiencing something unique to themselves, something connected to a dark secret in their own pasts. A gateway is now open, they become haunted by their secrets. Dun dun daaa. Can they survive?

Flatliners
Flatliners, 1990 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: While the movie is decidedly absurd, with its gothic-like setting and overly-crafted sets, there is no denying the impact of the story and some terrific performances by the young cast, all of whom do great work. These are well-defined characters that mostly defy the stereotypes and while there’s not much for diversity, at least they are all convincing.

The film’s style is weirdly neon-esque capped by blacklight murals and painted walls, all of which will become signature to Schumacher’s work on the Batman films he would helm a few years later. It’s all a bit much but that it is part of the film, it can’t be avoided and as such, once embraced, kinda gives the movie a dreamy quality.

Flatliners
Flatliners, 1990 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

That said, while the urgency of each near death experience wears a little thin as each escalates in problems, the script is refreshingly tight and delivered with lots of pop, but more so, intelligently as the choices made are of course inevitable but at least arrived at with some quality dialogue. It’s not just compelling, it’s intriguing.

A GREAT MOMENT: It might seem strange in a film about self-induced death, but it’s the relationships that tie this together, and while there’s plenty of sharp visuals, it’s much more about the characters, which is kind of surprising considering the premise, one that would lend itself to lots of trippy imagery and demonic-ish hauntings.

Flatliners
Flatliners, 1990 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

Noting already that the film goes too many times to the well in bringing back from the dead each of the characters, it’s nonetheless an intense moment the first time they do it with Nelson on the gurney and the others working to first properly stop his heart and then wait a minute before striving to revive him. We learn a lot about the process and while surely some of it’s compressed and skimmed over, the jargon and terminology sound spot on, made all the better by the immediacy of the situation. Apparently there were a few actual doctors on set to advice a verified procedure. There is genuine suspense that the actors deliver and while we know for certain, naturally, he’s going to make it, the process of it all is great with some questioning what they are doing as ethical breakdowns of their oaths as doctors and their obligation to research new frontiers are in direct conflict. Good stuff.

THE TALLY: Now nearly thirty years on, Flatliners remains a highly-watchable, albeit heavily-stylized thriller that still raises some disconcerting questions. Becoming a morality tale mixed with some chills, the film still clings nicely to some authenticity with its science while dabbling deeper into fantasy. The young cast is really good and truly sells the offbeat premise.

Flatliners
Flatliners, 1990 © Columbia Pictures Corporation

As the reboot/sequel approaches (Scheduled for September, 2017), starring Ellen Page and Diego Luna with an appearance by Sutherland playing his old character, now is a good time to revisit the first and see how it all started. If you haven’t seen it, don’t hesitate. Better than remembered, Flatliners is a solid thriller that isn’t very realistic but is plenty of fun. It’s what to watch.

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