Flatliners (1990)

5 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Flatliners” is a thriller that asks the question, “What happens to us when we die?” According to the main character in the film, no one can know for sure…unless someone dies and then lives to tell about the afterlife experience. But how is that possible? Well, for the characters in “Flatliners,” it’s possible. As for me, I’m not sure if the method would work, but I personally wouldn’t try it out either.

Let me explain—the movie is about a group of medical students who one-by-one stop each other’s heartbeats, to die. Before too long, the others revive the person. So that person will have come back from the dead to live to explain what was happened.

Being medical students, these people have been taught to play God to their patients. It’s Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland) who has the idea to look God in the eye with this little experiment. He enlists the help of Rachel (Julia Roberts), Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), Joe (William Baldwin), and Steckle (Oliver Platt) to sneak into the school after hours with medical equipment, in order to lower his heart rate, die, and have the others revive him by emergency measures. This experiment is dangerous, and would result in both death and expulsion…but it works. Nelson has come back from the afterlife, convincing the others to try it out themselves. Thus tampering with God’s plans for them.

This is an intriguing concept for a movie and it has a top-notch cast, as well as a unique, incredible style to it, from director Joel Schumacher. Also, the idea behind the afterlife’s plans after their experiment is quite something indeed. You know how when you nearly escape death and your life flashes before your eyes? In “Flatliners,” when the characters kill themselves and then are revived again, their biggest sins and fears (mainly to do with guilt) are brought back along with them. They haunt them to no end—for example, William Baldwin’s character is known for his one-night stands and secretly videotaping sexual intercourse; now whenever he looks through a camera or to a TV, he sees those same women, asking “How could you do this to me?” or saying, “I trusted you.” They conclude that the solution is to face them instead of run away from them. This is the movie’s way of saying that you should have your emotions in check before you die. That’s very clever.

This is when “Flatliners” stops becoming an adventure and a thriller and turns into drama. But while I got into Kevin Bacon’s story, and Kiefer Sutherland’s story becomes the central conflict, I feel like William Baldwin’s story had no satisfying turn and Julia Roberts’ entire story is handled so heavily that I felt like I was watching an afterlife-themed soap opera. (Oliver Platt doesn’t “flatline,” which he gladly mentions.)

There’s one thriller aspect that annoyed me, and it had to do with the “flatlining.” Actually, it’s not necessarily the flatlining; it’s the reviving. The first time you see it is kind of suspenseful, but when you have to see it a few more times, suspense is long gone and the scenes desperately try to hammer in the tension to little prevail. I was also annoyed by the competition among the characters based on who can stay dead the longest.

“Flatliners” works as a thriller, and works fine as a drama (though like I said, that’s mainly coming from Sutherland and Bacon’s separate story arcs, which are the strong points). Is there a tunnel with a bright light leading to heaven after you die? I don’t doubt it. Just don’t ask me to undergo this sort of therapy to find out.


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