Flatliners (a film review by Frank Ochieng)
There is always a risk involved when revisiting cinema from the past and dusting it off in favor of an ambitious remake for the consideration of today’s adventurous movie-going audience. Hollywood has done this tactic for decades now so this is nothing new to contemplate as food for thought. It is one thing to try and bring back the freshness and impact of the original blueprint from yesteryear for a distinctive film that proved to be critically acclaimed, extremely popular, conveniently trendy and memorable for it box office heyday. So what gives for trying to resuscitate a mediocre 1990 Brat Pack medical psychological thriller and re-packaging it as an updated glossy horror/SF fantasy focusing on the tiresome and exploitative life-and-death theme for the millennial mindset?
Perhaps director Niels Arden Oplev (‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’) can answer this puzzling inquiry as he presents front and centre his modern-day take on the nearly three decade-year old Joel Schumacher-directed DOA drama ‘Flatliners’. Indeed, Schumacher’s original outing was not what one would call engaging or stimulating to say the least but at least it boasted a noteworthy listing of talented young Hollywood hotshots (Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Billy Baldwin, Kevin Bacon, Hope Davis, Oliver Platt, etc.) to give a creative jolt to this highly contrived existential experimentation regarding the afterlife. However, Oplev concocts a faceless rehash that offers tepid thrills and chills, frivolous fright impulses that amount to all the riveting tension of a leaky bed pan in the emergency ward and a paper-thin payoff that never quite delivers.
In portraying young idealistic doctors that have an affinity for exploring the unknown realm of the human condition beyond the physical alertness of existence is somewhat of an interesting concept in consciousness on various levels of medical science, spirituality and just plain man-made curiosity. Nevertheless, ‘Flatliners’ (Oplev’s version, of course) does not have the inquisitive juice to lubricate any in-depth instinctive moral dilemma or philosophical ambivalence in this disjointed supernatural medical melodrama lacking a pulse (yes, pun intended). Oplev’s unimaginative direction and the run-of-the-mill script by screenwriter Ben Ripley does nothing to pump any bombastic blood in this cardiac caper that…er…has no intriguing heart (okay…another pun intended). Ironically, reviving the previous serving of the 27-year old Schumacher vehicle for a contemporary copycat that drips more than a faulty IV bag is the biggest fearful flatliner fantasy to behold.
Oscar-nominated Ellen Page (yesterday’s treasured darling courtesy of her spunky turn as a self-deprecating pregnant teen in 2007’s ‘Juno’) plays the film’s ringleader Courtney, a medical student whose guilt and fascination with death is incredulously shared by her group of contemporaries. Courtney is carrying a psychological burden involving a deceased sister, so naturally this is among the unfinished issues that haunt her personally. Basically, Courtney and her crew conduct risque experiments in the hospital’s underground basement in which they enthusiastically kill themselves only to be brought back to life afterwards. During their so-called flatliner sessions, they are disturbed by the ominous sensations of their life-and-death odyssey but remain captivated and invigorated at the same time. This does not deter Courney and her peers from stopping their hearts for the eerie adventurous rush they receive when entering the zone of a dream-like or appropriately nightmarish tranquility.
Among Courtney’s fellow medical heart-stopping thrill-seekers are James Norton’s Jamie, Nina Dobrev’s Marlo, Kiersey Clemon’s Sophia and Diego Luna’s Rudy, who is the recipient of the golden nugget for playing Page’s/Courtney’s lovey-dovey boyfriend whose primary role is to revive his sweetie and her associates after their treacherous trip through death’s delusional door. In any event, these halting heartthrobs (get the double meaning?) possess this awkward ambition to prove whether or not there is brain activity after leaving the land of the living. When the flatliners return to their lively senses, they acknowledge that the brain functioning has sharpened for the better. On the flip side, Courtney and her comatose cohorts all start to undergo some supernatural psychosis that promotes an array of problematic mental dysfunction. The significant vital signs include the drudging up of dark tormented secrets embedded in their damages psyches, monotonous memories that create disturbing unrest and an overall nervousness undefined in and out of their death-defying field trip into mercurial madness.
Interestingly, the mystery is not so much how dedicated and challenged these model-ready med students are ready to tip toe through the tulips of traumatic trances while bodily stopping their organs in the name of scientific ambivalence. The real mystery is why this insipid remake of ‘Flatliners’ was even made and revisited in the first place? For starters, Opley’s nervous system narrative into the realm of human consciousness feels clumsy, trivial, pointless and frivolously far-fetched. Even Schumacher’s original edition, albeit it a shoddy one, had some semblance of attempted earnestness despite its cockeyed and uneven capricious construction. Here, Opley does nothing in the least to give his ‘Flatliners’ any sense of flair, distinctive energy, dubious drive, lofty scares or hypnotic insight into this aimless, recycled material. The film looks cheaply produced and the real message of these young doctors’ journey into an abyss of deadened state is merely reduced to them hyperventilating at their own psychological indiscretions from the past. Sounds rather captivating, huh? The true malpractice at work here is the fraudulent posturing of ‘Flatliners’ coming off as an intriguing mega-medical malaise of major proportions. Plus, the obligatory jump-scares are relentlessly obvious and overplayed. Simply put, this drowsy doctored drama has nothing to say or suggest other than to sprinkle some meaningless titillating CGI imagery around to give this horror-induced hokum some creepy credibility.
Although the winking gimmick of having original ‘Flatliners’ star Keifer Sutherland return to his roots regarding the film’s reminiscence as a middle-aged lecturer is somewhat of a feel-good nostalgic touch, there is not much else that one can hang their hat on for this baseless paranormal puff piece into death-style delirium. Page’s Courtney and her care-giving counterparts come off more as polished twenty-something treats that should be shooting a provocative TV ad for The Gap clothing store rather than portraying death-jumping doctors. Sophomoric dialogue and the soulless randomness into the landscape of living and dying take its silly-minded toll beyond belief. Page, once an adventurous and resourceful actress with a nuanced nose for notable colorful parts in indie and mainstream films, is embarrassingly handcuffed to this SF/horror health care hazard of a motion picture.
What ‘Flatliners’ needs or any other regrettable notions of its future sequels or remakes is a decorative quarantine sign hanging on its hospital bed.
1 hour 48 minutes
CAST: Ellen Page, James Norton, Kiefer Sutherland, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev and Kiersey Clemons
DIRECTOR: Niels Arden Oplev
WRITER: Ben Ripley
MPAA Rating: PG-13
GENRE: Horror/Science Fiction/Drama/Fantasy
Critic’s rating: * 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
(c) Frank Ochieng (2017)