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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Flatliners

One initially has to wonder, why a remake of Flatliners?  It's a largely forgotten paranormal thriller from 1990 that featured a cast of at-the-time young talent such as Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Oliver Platt, all of whom have gone on to better things.  Do people remember the original enough for there to be a desire for a remake?  But then, I began to think that the original had an intriguing premise with a mediocre execution.  Perhaps a remake could build upon that.  Unfortunately, this update follows the original right off the cliff, refuses to embrace its ideas, and instead gives us a very confused and simple-minded morality story that boils down to "be nice to people, or else you will suffer in the afterlife". 

The premise is essentially the same as 27 years ago.  A bunch of young medical students begin to toy with the idea of life after death.  They use an underground area of a hospital to conduct their experiments, where one member of the group volunteers to have the others stop their heart for a certain amount of time.  They will then be brought back, and they can study what happens when we die, and if there really is a "white light" and angelic music as some people report when they have had near-death experiences.  The head of the experiment is Courtney (Ellen Page).  She's fascinated in the idea of life after death, because 9 years ago, she was in a car accident while she was texting while driving, which took the life of her little sister.  The other students involved include workaholic Marlo (Nina Dobrev), cocky Jamie (James Norton) and shy Sophia (Kiersey Clemmons).  All of them share Courtney's curiosity about the other side.  There is a fifth member, Ray (Diego Luna), who doesn't think they should be toying with the afterlife, and is basically around to make sure the others don't wind up permanently dead.

One by one, all of them but Ray perform the experiment and are legally dead for a few minutes.  They experience the sensation of flying, revisiting old memories, or seeing flashes of their lives.  When they are brought back to the land of the living, they seem to remember things that they have long forgotten.  Courtney, for example, suddenly remembers how to play the piano, and can even bake bread like her grandma used to when she comes back from the afterlife.  But there is something sinister, as well.  After their return from being dead, everyone finds themselves haunted by a paranormal force that seems to know their past sins and deepest secrets, and is haunting them.  Courtney begins to see the car her sister died in, Marlo is reminded of a time she lost a patient because she prescribed the wrong medication, Jamie sees a former girlfriend whom he got pregnant and backed out of when she had an abortion, and Sophia is tormented by visions of a girl she cyberbullied in high school. 

Just as in the 1990 film, Flatliners does very little with its intriguing premise of exploring the nature of the afterlife, and instead turns it into a marathon of jump scares where spooky visions of the past start haunting the individual people who partake in the experiment.  The movie all but drops any questions it may ask about the ethical nature of the experiment after the first 20 minutes or so, and instead dives head-first into cliched thriller territory.  The thing is, the movie is never quite clear just what exactly is happening, or what exactly this paranormal force wants with these medical students.  Does it want these people to face their sins, admit to what they did wrong in the past, and move on from their troubled memories?  That seems to be what the last half hour of the film is leaning toward, with its overall message of forgiveness and "being mean to people is wrong".  But then, why are these ghostly visions trying to kill these med students if they are supposed to move on?  One of the students is pushed off a fire escape ladder by a ghost, while another gets stabbed in the hand with a knife by their own ghostly vision.  In one of the film's unintentionally funnier moments, the character can be seen wearing a bandage on their hand in the next scene, but right after that, the hand is fine and healed.

Honestly, there are lots of ways this movie could have dug deeper into the ideas of the first movie, and really explored what it was trying to say.  Instead, director Niels Arden Oplev seems to be using the original Joel Schumacher movie as a blueprint, not as a launching point.  The main characters are also largely unsympathetic for most of the running time, so it's hard to get behind their individual plights.  Everyone who partakes in the experiment are essentially one-note characters.  Sophia, for example, still lives with her mother, who dominates her life and talks down to her.  She finally finds the courage to stand up to her mother and leave home, but this holds no weight, because the plot has been so poorly handled up to now, and is never brought up again afterward.  How are we supposed to be happy about her liberation if the movie largely ignores it and forgets to comment on it once it happens? 

All Flatliners proves is that if you do a faithful remake of a mediocre movie, you're going to get another mediocre movie.  Remakes offer a chance to look at an old story in a new way, or for the director to put their own spin on it.  It's a shame that nobody behind this version took that idea to heart.  It should be noted that one of the stars of the earlier film, Kiefer Sutherland, shows up in a small role here.  I guess Julia Roberts was either too busy, or just wanted nothing to do with this.  I'm leaning toward the latter. 

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