Flatliners (1990)

If nothing else, Flatliners features the most architecturally innovative medical school in history. The film is set in Chicago, yet its five main characters attend anatomy classes within a surreal Gothic structure (Is it a church? a medieval disco? an alien spaceship?) that suggests a pop satanic version of the Taj Mahal. I guess the setting is appropriate. Surrounded by an incongruous array of Doric columns and Old Master paintings, and with the light so dim it’s a wonder anyone can even make out the cadavers, these young medical daredevils are engaged in a reckless quest into The Beyond.

The title refers to the flat, ridgeless brain wave that results on the EEG screen when a person’s life functions have completely ceased. Inspired by the afterlife experiences of those who have ”died” and returned to life, Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland), sort of a Brat Pack Dr. Frankenstein, leads his fellow ”flatliners” in a reckless experiment. They take turns having their heart, lungs, and brain shut down for two or three minutes at a time, until they’re revived. The flatliners learn that the afterlife isn’t quite as peachy-keen as they expected. Unfortunately, that’s what the audience learns, too. You may go into Flatliners hoping for a psychedelic mindblower, but the film is about as exciting as staring at a lava lamp for two hours.

You know you’re in a trouble when a movie begins with heavenly choirs on the soundtrack. The director, Joel Schumacher, also made The Lost Boys. Here, once again, he works in a style that could be described as high rock video: It’s gloss with pretentions. The Lost Boys was the vampire movie as New Wave teen fashion show; Flatliners is the trip movie as New Wave teen morality play. As the characters plunge into the afterlife, we expect, naturally, that they’ll be lofted through surreal fantasies, metaphysical visions, pretty colors. And, yes, there’s a daisy field or two, and couple of zooming helicam shots. One of the characters — a womanizer — dreams a black-and-white montage that looks like the covers of the next eight Madonna albums. But mostly, what the characters get are reveries of the past. Visions of the things they feel guilty about. They come face to face with…their sins!

David (Kevin Bacon) feels guilty about making fun of a little black girl in grade school. Joe (William Baldwin), the Lothario, feels guilty for making secret videotapes of the girls he goes to bed with (what an original gimmick for a movie!). Rachel (Julia Roberts) feels guilty about the suicide of her father, a Vietnam veteran. As for Kiefer Sutherland’s Nelson, his guilt revolves around a rather dastardly incident, this one also concerning a grade-school compatriot.

As it turns out, confronting this terrible stuff in death isn’t enough. When the characters return from their flatline state, their visions are still with them. The little black girl keeps appearing to torment David. All of Joe’s women now turn to face him on the video monitor — they’re his sexual accusers! And the young boy from Nelson’s dream keeps showing up to kick the crap out of him. Take that for your sins, butt-face! And that! At times, it’s like watching a slightly arty edition of an Afterschool Special. The message? Don’t be mean to kids at school.

Brain death is very much in evidence here, though perhaps not in quite the way the producers intended. What isn’t in evidence is the sort of overheated lunacy that made the William Hurt speed-freak trip movie Altered States (1980) such delectable trash. Flatliners is camp, but of a very low order. Schumacher is too intent on pandering to the youth market to take the mad risks and plunges that make for a scintillating bad movie. His idea of cinematic excitement is to feature a jumpy, nervous camera every time one of the characters comes out of a death state. We’re supposed to think, ”Gee, will they make it back?!” By the third or fourth close call, we’re not exactly sweating.

Schumacher’s fusion of flash and lugubriousness payed off commercially in The Lost Boys, but there, at least, a few of the actors — notably Kiefer Sutherland — had a demonic charisma. Sutherland is always much more dynamic when he’s playing leering, smarmy types. His overly blase mad scientist in Flatliners would have worked better had he been more victimizer than victim. The ageless Kevin Bacon turns in another soft-edged performance, and Julia Roberts’ fans will be disappointed to see that her follow-up to Pretty Woman (this one was made before anyone knew she was a star) is such a dud, and that she has a relatively minor role in it. The part doesn’t give her much of a chance — but then she doesn’t do much with it except to stand around and look beautiful and concerned. She’ll survive Flatliners without much problem, though for a lesser star a movie like this could prove a journey into an afterlife from which there is no return. D

Flatliners (1990)
  • Movie
  • 115 minutes