On wasted concepts, monotonous operating rooms, and the dire need for elaborate pranks
Flatliners Columbia Pictures
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenplay: Ben Ripley, based on a 1990 screenplay by Peter Filardi
Starring: Ellen Page, James Norton, Kiersey Clemons, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev and Kiefer Sutherland
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 50 minutes / 2.39:1
September 29, 2017
(out of four)
Twice they have made Flatliners. And twice they have screwed it up in the exact same way.
Twice, a movie has taken this basic scene concept - people experiencing an afterlife in the moments right after death, while their med-student friends frantically try to revive them in a makeshift operating room - and kept its attention squarely on ... the alive people in the operating room. I can't wrap my head around the lack of imagination it takes - the lack of curiosity - to consider the resuscitation portion of this scenario to be the more interesting of the two. For starters: We already know what operating-table defibrillator drama looks like. We've seen all that in a thousand movies, and a thousand episodes of a hundred medical dramas. But beyond that: In these moments, what is the most important event taking place? Whose experience is actually relevant here? Behind those closed eyes, the person on that operating table is experiencing something seemingly impossible - magical, surreal, boundless in its possibility, world-changing in its implications. And also, by the film's premise, almost painfully personal. And what does director Niels Arden Oplev give us? Bland cutaways to each person's trip to the other side, and nothing more. The rest of our time is spent with everyone else - waiting for the predetermined time limit to tick down, staring at medical equipment, injecting this, injecting that, yelling about how their friend is about to die.
When each person inevitably revives, they've experienced something they will never forget - without ever giving us the chance to experience it with them.
The choice of what to focus on here seems as fundamental as knowing where to point the camera. In fact, it is a matter of knowing where to point the camera. And it's not on the living. Yet that's where the film goes, in scene after scene and death after death. Aside from being dramatically meaningless in and of itself, it also gets extremely redundant. How many times must Oplev show us four amateur doctors frantically trying to figure out how to revive someone, then inevitably reviving that someone, before he finally gets bored with it? Actually, strike that; the question answers itself. Oplev is bored, and he's seeing to it that we're just as bored as he is.
At the very least, he's not alone. His film is a remake of Joel Schumacher's 1990 thriller of the same name, which is mostly notable as an early-years footnote in the careers of Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland (among others). Oplev achieves the inconceivable in making a version that is somehow worse than an already terrible original - and by a wide margin, at that. Schumacher was guilty of the same point-of-view error - he may have given even less screen time to his characters' life-after-death visions than the new version does - but at least he knew how to paint a scene. His big splashes of red and blue light against the late-night interiors of the cathedral setting gave the otherwise dull life-and-death proceedings a heightened, neon gothic aura. He directed like an overeager lighting technician, but at least he directed like something. Oplev - a TV and film veteran whose highest-profile gig was the original (and terrible) Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - simply paints his paint-by-numbers thriller by the numbers. In a sense, I suppose, this is to say he does Ben Ripley's lousy screenplay justice ... but even that would be giving him too much credit. The script overtly leaves the director a few threads to pick up, a few ideas to expand upon. Case in point: Our de-facto lead Courtney (Ellen Page) - who first comes up with the plan to "die" under observation and be revived a minute later, a sort of hands-on medical investigation into life after death - is naturally the first to go under, and when she wakes up and is asked to describe her experience, she says: "It was actually kinda sexual."
Except ... it wasn't. What we see of her experience is her walking around in a stupor grabbing little orbs of light from mid-air. I mean, I realize sexuality is subjective, but "being surrounded by glowing orbs of light while walking around alone and fully clothed" would be an awfully specific fetish. (Not that I'm judging, mind.) Point being, Oplev's concept for Courtney's experience is a neat little computer-generated visual and that's basically it. He never attempts to get across anything visceral, or primal, so when she comes back and describes her experience in those terms - personal, physical terms - she is describing something far different from what the film has bothered to give us.
Another moment that struck me in the same way: After another night of near-deaths and close calls ends with a bit of heavy drinking and brightly-lit makeout sessions, the gang stumbles out onto the wet city streets of Toronto Chicago and one of them declares, "This has been the strangest night of my life!" Except ... again, it wasn't. We saw the night they all just had. Aside from the "bringing someone back from the dead" part (which, by this point in the movie, is old-hat), there was nothing remotely peculiar about the night itself. Pretty standard - in fact, pretty mild - partying among attractive twentysomething friends, thrown together largely in a bland montage. I'd love to see a strange version of that night - or a strange version of this premise, for that matter. But Flatliners doesn't do strange. Flatliners thinks it's a totally normal thriller that just happens to have a supernatural premise. It operates like a bland whodunit rather than an existential nightmare. Pity.
That's another thing both versions of this movie have in common: Treating the unintended consequences of playing God - and conquering death - as a simple problem of plot, with simple solutions of plot. What these characters unearth when they take the plunge is the secrets of their own pasts. Once they realize this, they simply go about trying to make amends to whatever or whomever they hurt or insulted or destroyed once upon a time. That's it. That's the movie. No big questions asked, just guilty consciences answered. Oh, I know why I've been having those scary visions lately - it's because of that mean thing I did in high school. I'll go apologize and make it all better. The ideas the film's characters - Courtney in particular - seem to be obsessed with are not just discarded but barely even acknowledged. To Ripley (Source Code, Species III) and Oplev, the entire conceit is a trivial one. They even turn the title into a constantly repeated catchphrase - a normalized verb inexplicably spoken in casual conversation between the characters; "Hey gang, let's do some flatlining tonight!" Together with Jamie (James Norton), Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), Marlo (Nina Dobrev) and Ray (Diego Luna), Courtney has willfully opened Pandora's Box, and the film is all too eager to slam it shut.
Kiefer Sutherland shows up in this movie, and I kept looking for a reason why. Was he the same character 27 years later, now older and wiser? Would he, at one point, cheekily deliver some sort of play on his character's original catchphrase - "It's a good day to die" - and then turn to the camera and wink? Would Oliver Platt or Kevin Bacon show up for their cameos, too? Finally, I settled on the only thing that would have made the effort of sitting through this remake worthwhile: A late twist revealing that all of our heroes' scary experiences were an elaborate ruse, staged by the now-wealthy and successful Dr. Nelson Wright, designed to teach these over-curious young med-school brats a lesson. At the height of the terror, the hospital lights suddenly turn back on, Kiefer makes his grand re-entrance, calmly takes off his glasses and declares: "And that's why you don't flatline." I think J. Walter Weatherman would approve.