The Test of Time: Flatliners (1990)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Time for a quick pulse check, friends. How many of you are looking to get a glimpse of the purgatorial afterlife in the oddly timed sequel to FLATLINERS next week? Feel free to slit a vein a spill some blood on the particulars of why or why not below, but know this, 27 years is a dubious amount of elapsed time between any cinematic story continuation. A remake is one thing, just ask the producers of IT, but an outright sequel? In the immortal words of John Lennon, strange days indeed! Still, given the director Neils Arden Oplev (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) is helming the rudder, I must admit, a bit more than mild intrigue has taken hold. Add the reprisal of Keifer Sutherland and the fact that writer Ben Ripley (SOURCE CODE) knows a bit about how to plumb the depths of a thrilling near-death experience, go ahead and up the intrigue to an even more piquant degree.

But first, let’s go back to 1990, shall we. How many of you are fans of the original FLATLINERS? How many of you have never even seen it? Well, it’s one of Joel Schumacher’s better movies. This guy often gets a bad rap, and often rightly so, but remember, old Joel did give us THE LOST BOYS and FALLEN DOWN among a few other decent non-genre outings. FLATLINERS, while a slight step below, deserves to be mentioned among those others. At least, it did in 1990. But what about now, in 2017? Does FLATLINERS still pound the pulse the way it did three decades ago? Has it lost its vitality? Well, we’re about to find out when we lift the defibrillator and see if The Test of Time has rendered FLATLINERS dead or alive!

THE STORY: In his first ever film script, writer Peter Filardi (THE CRAFT, RICKY 6) put forth a doozy of a thought-provoking tale of sci-fi horror. A quintet of aspirational medical students – played by Keifer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, Oliver Platt and Billy Baldwin – conjure the nerve to, one by one, cheat the reaper by undergoing near-death experiences. That is, under the supervision of the others, each student willingly has their heart stopped so they can briefly experience the afterlife. They’ve been told, through their own field studies, of the peaceful ambience such experiences are accompanied with, the soft white light and soothing music welcoming them along with perished friends and loved ones waiting for them on the other side of the living ethereal plane. Sounds pleasant enough, right? Oh f*ck no!

After a bit of a twisted addiction to this process takes over, the innocuous turns to the insidious in quick flash. Each student, as they go under one at a time, begins to access unearthed memories and repressed nightmares of their childhood transgressions. And they begin to materialize in their waking lives. Not only are they running the risk of death, and their medical profession to boot, they begin paying harsh physical tolls the deeper they go under. Using amped-up EKG paddles and hefty adrenaline shots to revive each other from brief moments of clinical death, the students begin experiencing far more than they bargained for at the outset. It’s a fantastic idea for a movie, no doubt about it, and as you’ll find below, still one of the reasons why the movie has legs. Bruised and battered varicose veiny-legs, but legs nonetheless!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Straight up, the premise of FLATLINERS is beyond reproach. It’s too damn cool. So killer in fact there’s little wonder why the story is being continued, even if it is a weirdly numbered 27 years later. What’s so cool about it, aside from the aforementioned above, is how it works on both a scintillating sci-fi level as well as on that of a seductive psychological thriller. The inherent risk of wanting to peer into the afterlife without knowing positively you will make it out alive is a genuine breath-stopper, and the movie uses this simple idea to largely great cinematic effect. But the movie goes one step further. It’s the psychological unraveling the moral quandary presents that gives the film greater depth. The brush with not only your own death, but the potential murder of a fellow student, and friend at that, lends the proper pathos to the movie that could otherwise be a pretty silly and routine thriller. Then of course is the physical exigency, as the deeper and darker the purgatorial hole is explored, the greater the bodily deterioration becomes. The price for peering into purgatory isn’t a parsimonious one!

Another key ingredient to make such a delicious dish is the performances by the inspired cast. We know Sutherland sort of runs the show, gravitating towards the almighty power of playing god, opening the film with the line “it’s a good day to die.” He and Schumacher have done a handful of films together, and they clearly have a shorthand with each other that tends to elicit some of Keifer’s better performances out of him. It’ll be interesting to see how he plays the role of Nelson Wright nearly 30 years later under the direction of another director altogether. But beyond Nelson, every character in FLATLINERS is played with well rounded conviction by the five principals. Kevin Bacon, hot off of TREMORS, is always terrific, and here he plays the role of David with, aside from a beautifully coiffed Bon Jovi mullet, both a certain sadness and air of unmatched cool that goes a long way toward sympathizing with his decision making. Six degrees cool, yo!

Julia Roberts follows up PRETTY WOMAN with a completely disparate turn, lending the much needed feminine point of view to help curb the power-hungry male ulterior motivations (Nelson’s “60 Minutes” fame seeking in particular). She brings a measured calmness that helps counter the manic movements of her male counterparts. Less impressive, admittedly, is Billy Baldwin’s perverted sex-tape lothario who can’t seem to break the pattern of filming the women he sleeps with…using a giant outmoded camcorder no less. But Oliver Platt? This guy is always tremendous, and here he not only brings much needed comic relief to a movie that borders on the deathly grave, but his moral quagmire about the process of Flat-lining to begin with provides the right amount of dramatic tension within the group.

Shot by would-be director Jan De Bont, the look and texture of FLATLINERS’ sumptuous cinematography is still one of its absolute strong suits. The eerie Neo-Gothic setting adorned with ornate ancient artworks, garish pillars, high-ceilings all diffused through the brilliant use of light and shadow, stained glass windows and the like really give the film a undeniably chilly feel. The spookily ambient hospital settings and all of its accoutrements – large hypodermic needles, gory cadavers, shadowy corridors, beeping EKG monitors, etc. – really give the film the kind of distinct visual flare that, by design, is meant to withstand the test of time. The ancient, century-old architecture, set in the 1990s, give the film a timeless quality that works in its favor.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: I’m not sure if it’s simply seeing the film over again, or if it’s how far movies have come since 1990, but damn if FLATLINERS doesn’t feel way too redundant after awhile. Really, there’s a categorical diminishment of returns in terms of thrills as the movie goes along. The first time we see a character go under and face the white light, it’s genuinely unnerving. By the fifth time, it’s hardly effective at all. We become too inured to the process by seeing it that often, even if different inner-demons are brought to the surface as a result. The movie tends to lose steam in the second half.

Also, the Billy Baldwin subplot, surely meant to sex-up the young cast for a demographic box-office appeal, feels a bit cheap and pandering by today’s standards. Then again, dude did get to bang Sharon Stone in SLIVER directly after this, so the joke is on us I suppose. Still, Baldwin to me is the weak link here. He was in 1990 and even more so now in 2017.

THE VERDICT: All in all, FLATLINERS does hold up pretty well. This is largely due to the unimpeachably radical premise, the nuanced performances of an inspired cast (not you, Billy) and the intensely atmospheric look and feel of the film. If Niels Arden Oplev can aptly recreate these facets, and do so without too much imitation, but instead putting his own stylized spin on such, then yeah, FLATLINERS 2017 will indeed be heart-stopping must see!



Source: AITH

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.