I dislike statements which are by nature absolutes. I have held discussions with fellow cinephiles that categorically object to remake, reboots, and reimagining based on their representing a woeful dearth of originality and imagination. There is a place for revisiting certain stories on multiple occasions. Numerous classics are iconic, able to explore the heart of the human condition that they demand to be retold every generation or so through the prism of a new perspective and set of sensibilities. The movie under consideration here, ‘Flatliners (2017)’. Thre original film released back in 1990, wasn’t considered a major cinematic achievement and although it has garnered a cult following it hasn’t been on the top of any list of potential remakes. Thematically the story taps into themes that are among the most ancient of humanity. A commonality shared by every mythology and religion is the concern over what happens after death. Spiritual explanations may be satisfying, but for scientists, the one thing that has never been possible is to gather empirical data making it feasible to explore the previously unknowable details of death as a biological process and precisely what happens afterward. Advances in technology have brought the possibility of such a line of inquiry closer to realization, a growing number of what has been deemed ‘near-death experiences,’ curiosity has been greatly heightened. Twenty-seven years ago, the idea of stopping a person’s heart, waiting a predetermined amount of time and resuscitating that person was possible. The original movie at least had a modicum of originality, after so many years of films and television shows examining these themes revising the flick from the nineties would require a considerable twist to revitalize what has become a very familiar trope. The slim chance of achieving that goal eluded the screenwriter/director Stephen Chbosky completely. This is disappointing since this filmmaker has a proven track record of much better works. He wrote and directed the poignant coming of age story, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ and scripted the screen adaptation of ‘Rent’ and the 2017 live action version of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ His most recent film ‘Wonder,’ further demonstrates Mr. Chbosky can handle the deepest personal issues and provide the audience with remarkable insight to his characters and their circumstance but in ‘Flatliners’ he had a swing and a miss.
Courtney (Ellen Page), has always been obsessed with the afterlife. Not knowing what happens when the body ceases to support life was a burning question that continually plagued her. When Courtney was accepted to medical, she finally gained the means to exploit her propensity for scientific methods with her need to uncover the ultimate mystery. Courtney invites a pair of curious friends, Jamie (James Norton) and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), to participate in her experimentation. After gaining access to an unused room in the hospital, she will have her heart stopped by the defibrillator and after one minute has elapsed, restarted. During this time her brain’s activity will be monitored and recorded. To allay any trepidation, she assures her colleagues she takes all responsibility, and they will not be held accountable no matter what the outcome. This promise is blatantly a plot contrivance to quickly skirt the questions in the minds of the audience; why would these people risk their careers and freedom for such a preposterous suggestion. Sophia is opposed, refusing to assist but Jamie proceeds to help. Of course, the heart-stopping portion of the plans goes perfectly, but after the allotted sixty seconds they are unable to revive Courtney. It might have been a good idea to wait until passing a couple more years of classes and perhaps some clinical hours before killing your friend. Panic sets in but thanks to the opportune addition to the cabal, Ray (Diego Luna), Courtney is brought back. The group expands again when Marlo (Nina Dobrev) learns of the experiments and wants to participate. That quandary is addressed by some unexpected side effects of induced cardiac arrest. Courtney starts to remember little facts and occurrences from her childhood. The initial example was recalling her grandmother's recipe for bread. That would have been an interesting piece of trivia in her experimental note, but then more substantial effects are manifested. Courtney experiences a sense of euphoria and a marked enhancement of cognitive abilities and motor control. She was suddenly able to play the piano despite not sitting in front of one for over a dozen years. Her performance in class was elevated to near savant levels. When the others in the coterie wanted to have their turn at the upgrade, they were ill prepared for what would happen.
Jamie is the first to follow the flatline protocol, but his experience included a vision of an ex-girlfriend in a decidedly unpleasant context. Visions plague both Jamie and Courtney but without that fact from the others. For a person so driven by the need for scientific proof, omitting a discussion of the most noteworthy data generated is inconsistent with the basic personality given to Courtney. This is particularly annoying on a narrative level when Jamie replicates the deleterious effects. The study lacked any scientific validity, but this completely undermined the core personality of Courtney. It is acceptable in a story of this type to have a significant change in the protagonist, but the way it unfolded was completely devoid of a sense of narrative continuity or veracity. With the terrible consequences of the experiment left hidden, Marlo and Sophia follow suit and flatline, for an increasing number of minutes. Initially, the same beneficial effects are observed, but inevitably the nightmarish visions affect them all. The visions are personalized, each vividly revisiting an especially traumatic experience. Courtney continually is visited by her sister, Tessa, who died because Courtney was on her phone while driving. Jamie’s haunting is the eeriest, by the baby that his ex-girlfriend would have had if he didn’t bully her into an abortion. Mario’s tormentor is a man who died of a jellyfish sting because Mario administered the wrong medication. Sophia is visited by a girl whose life was destroyed by nude photographs Sophia hacked in to become valedictorian. In every case, the visitation was based on a life ruined as a direct result of a serious character flaw of the flatline ranging from carelessness to malicious ambition.
The theme of crossing beyond the veil of death subjects the flatline to horrors from their past is eventually turned into an imitation of ‘Quantum Leap’ to stop the visions they must set their past mistake right. Considering some of the wronged parties are deceased this should present a rather insurmountable problem. Of course, at this point in the movie, the audience will be inundated with plot hole, inconsistencies, logic errors and bad storytelling that it really will not make much of an impact. To validate the movie, there is an appearance by an original cast member, Kiefer Sutherland, as a faculty member and thankfully not to resurrect his character. Mr. Sutherland and Ms. Page are both exceptionally talented in several aspects of filmmaking and deserve the much better use of their time and effort.