Back in 2016, in an interview with Metro, actor Kiefer Sutherland said something that promptly made the rounds in the usual film-news outlets: he claimed Niels Arden Oplev’s 2017 Flatliners remake is actually a sequel to the original 1990 film. “I play a professor at the medical university,” he told writer Ann Lee. “It is never stated but it will probably be very clearly understood that I’m the same character I was in the original Flatliners but that I have changed my name and I’ve done some things to move on from the experiments that we were doing in the original film.”
That’s actually an intriguing prospect. Joel Schumacher’s ’90s Flatliners is a schlocky but stylish, propulsive science-fantasy about a handful of medical students who experiment with stopping each other’s hearts and reviving each other, in order to get a hint at what death feels like, and what’s behind the visions patients have during near-death experiences. Before long, four of the five protagonists are haunted by specters from their past, as something in the death-and-revival process converts their guilty consciences into dangerous physical manifestations.
But half the film’s run time goes into watching the characters figuring this out, then fussing over what to do about it. Bringing Sutherland in as a mentor figure — one experienced in the dangers of flatlining, and with advice about how to survive — raised the possibility of a Flatliners sequel that would acknowledge the past and push the franchise into the future. It could have helped move the plot along faster, leaving more time for new territory and new developments. And with an experienced older character on hand to draw out the protagonists’ motives and question their purpose, Flatliners could have focused on character development and conflict past the most basic, obvious first steps.
Instead, Oplev and screenwriter Ben Ripley (who also wrote Duncan Jones’ Source Code) opt for the laziest, most predictable route — an almost blow-by-blow remake that runs a new crew of flatliners through the exact same beats as the old ones, but with less energy and creativity. Sutherland’s character is a near-nonentity, a cameo who turns up in a few scenes as a generic cranky medical-center administrator. The character doesn’t do anything specific or interesting to justify Sutherland’s presence. The same could be said of the film as a whole. It slunk into theaters unheralded, not screened for critics, and without preview screenings, already discarded by the studio, and it’s easy to see why. At every step, it represents a series of possibilities that were rejected, and interesting chances discarded in favor of duller ones.
This time around, X-Men and Inception’s Ellen Page leads the experiment as Courtney, a young med student who has personal reasons for her fascination with the afterlife. Years ago, while texting and driving, she caused a car crash that killed her younger sister. But she lies to fellow students Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) and Jamie (James Norton), telling them she’s chasing a scientific discovery that will make them all famous and highly employable. Sophia is struggling academically, and wants that edge; Jamie, an arrogant rich kid who lives on his family’s yacht, seems more motivated by a thrill he hasn’t tried. But thanks to a lecture from Sutherland’s brusque chief doctor, they’re both aware of the competition they face in an overcrowded medical field, and they leap into the flatlining experiments with only token resistance. Courtney’s first experiment goes wrong, though, and more competent student Ray (Diego Luna) is roped in to revive her. Then competitive student Marlo (Nina Dobrev) finds out what they’re up to, and crashes the party.
Give Ripley this: his story moves fast. Courtney comes back from her flatlining experience with a better memory for obscure medical diagnoses, her grandmother’s bread recipe, enhanced piano-playing skills, and a sense of overall well-being, so everyone but Ray quickly lines up for their turn on the slab and the brain-scanner. Then they all start hallucinating moderately spooky things — a phantom baby, the word “murderer” scrawled in blood, and so forth — and they realize their histories are haunting them. But where Schumacher’s Flatliners created a steady sense of escalation and danger, Oplev’s version is less focused, and the threat never manifests past some generic jump-scares. And the characters aren’t developed well enough for their well-being to become a concern. Only Luna, playing a sort of long-haired, sad-eyed skinny-sexy-Jesus, comes across as sympathetic, but the filmmakers never decide why he’s in the story. The script hints vaguely at some sort of tragic past as a Houston firefighter, then drops it to get on to the next tame boo-eek moment.
Like so many science-fiction horror movies, Flatliners in both its iterations is about the hazards of playing God — or at least, the hazards of playing God via sloppy research protocols. So many “science goes wrong” movies (see also: Splice, Transcendence, Morgan, etc.) imply that there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know Or Do, and that the indifferent cosmos will punish anyone crossing the wrong line. But these movies are often in such a hurry to get to the exciting consequences that their stars come across as lazy, shallow, and dumb. Here, they each have their own reasons for participating, but those motives are only sketched in the most half-assed ways.
Schumacher’s Flatliners at least had an exaggerated sense of style going for it, in an aggressively intense color scheme and a reliance on strong, evocative images. Oplev mimics some of that in the most literal ways — “The original had an outdoor party around a bonfire, here’s my outdoor party around a bonfire” — but brings nothing new to them. The narrative follows the same rules: the few minor twists are brief and quickly forgotten, both by the characters and the story. But really, the new Flatliners’ problem is that fatal lack of escalation, of rising stakes or the characters being cornered. The filmmakers could have saved it by using its sequel status to up the ante, and move the story somewhere new. Every retread of a familiar story has to bring something new to the table, if it’s going to justify its existence. Instead, this is yet another cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together out of scavenged parts, and shocked back to life for no clear or compelling reason.