Running time: 115 min.
Release date: August 10, 1990
Flatliners asks the question: what lies in wait for us after death? Is it a tunnel holding a bright light at the end, like so many before have described? Is it a vision of loved ones that have passed before us, holding out their arms? Or, in the case of this film, is it deep-seated guilt waiting to manifest itself so that it could attack us with a hockey stick? Flatliners poses some tricky questions that it wants to answer, but instead distracts us with style and melodrama while failing to really answer anything. It starts out by provoking deep thought about the subject of what may be on the other side but then winds up taking a side trip to a dimension filled with guilty consciences and regrets without really ever getting back on track. Flatliners is a stylish and somewhat haunting film, but by dodging its own questions, does it do enough to entertain?
Nelson Wright (Keifer Sutherland) is a medical student who convinces four of his friends/classmates to help him discover what lies on the other side of death. Nelson is the type of contemplative student who stands on a bridge overlooking a river, assuredly telling himself "Today is a good day to die". Melodramatic dialogue like this occurs throughout the story. His friends include Rachel (Julia Roberts), Joe (William Baldwin), Randy (Oliver Platt) and Dave (Kevin Bacon). They all have the illusion of themselves as some sort of rebel, determined to be the rock star, life-saving surgeon the world needs, regardless of the rules. An early example of this is when Dave gets suspended after attempting an unauthorized life-saving procedure on an ER patient. So Nelson and company perform their secret scientific ritual in which they medically induce Nelson into death. We get an image of Nelson, presumably in the after life, since that's what we're told he's after. But it appears to be more of a flashback, as Nelson has a vision of himself as a child, bullying another kid named Billy Mahoney, which leads to Billy's accidental death. After being resuscitated, Nelson keeps to himself what he saw, but assures his friends that something was indeed there waiting for him. So each student takes their turn with the experiment, with each one trying to claim bragging rights on how long they can stay under before being brought back. Joe has erotic visions of the various women he has slept with. Dave has visions of a black girl that he tormented when he was young, while Rachel has visions of her dead father and his suicide. Eventually, it turns out that instead of experiencing the after life, the group are having their deepest guilt come back to haunt them. This doesn't necessarily answer the question posed from the beginning. The visions each person has could have come off as campy, but they are given such gravitas that it is very difficult to laugh at each one. That is probably a wise decision, as this story could have gone horribly and laughably wrong. The way each character deals with their own personal nightmare lends weight to the plot. The biggest misstep for the story, however, is dodging the answer to the big question it had asked and which drove the plot to begin with. However, there is just enough momentum from the ideas that are presented, along with the stylish storytelling and directing, and the performances of the cast, that one can forget what the characters were truly searching for.
Joel Schumacher's last foray into the horror realm prior to Flatliners was The Lost Boys, another film that contained a young and talented cast. Schumacher utilizes plenty of style with his use of color such as blue and red to indicate when a character's own personal hell is about to strike. There is also plenty of atmosphere in exteriors such as dark alleys; the kind of alleys with clouds of steam rising from manholes and construction sites. Thanks to some professional cinematography from Jan de Bont, who himself would go on to direct such stylish thrillers as Speed and The Haunting, Schumacher's story is appropriately draped in chills and suspense.
Each of the cast provide a good performance. Kevin Bacon is assured and the most grounded of the group and is easily removed from his early roles in Footloose and She's Having a Baby. This film, along with Tremors, give Bacon some credence in the horror/sci-fi realm. Keifer Sutherland is much closer to his performance in The Lost Boys, where he was dark, brooding and mysterious. He's much the same way here, except without the vampire teeth. In following up her part in Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts holds her cards a little closer but never let's the boys' club keep her from jumping in. William Baldwin and Oliver Platt don't get as much shine as the other three, but Platt holds his own with his comedic timing. As an emsemble, however, their interactions with one another click.
Flatliners pretends to have the answers to questions about life and death, but what it truly holds is a universal truth: confession is good for the soul. The sins of the past, when manifested in physical form, can be cleansed, but only if you're willing to make amends with the past. Joel Schumacher uses style and atmosphere to distract the audience from the plot's ninety degree turn from it's original course, and he mostly succeeds. That is thanks in large part to a good cast and haunting visuals. Flatliners could have been an exercise in camp, but ends up being a solid thriller.