Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 12, 2021)
1990 became a big summer for dead people on movie screens. Most memorably, Ghost turned into a massive hit, one that ended up in second place for the year behind Home Alone.
While not as successful, Flatliners found a pretty decent audience as well. With a hot young cast, its $61 million US didn’t quite live up to expectations, but the movie still became a moderate success.
Medical school student Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland) becomes obsessed with attempts to learn what happens after death. In that vein, he decides to conduct an experiment in which his classmates will cause him to die and then bring him back to life after one minute.
Though his peers view this as a one-way ticket to the morgue, they go along with it anyway, and it works. Nelson “flatlines” for 60 seconds and then returns with claims of visions from his childhood.
Though initially skeptical, this wins over his friends and they want to go through their own “flatline” experiences. As each one pushes the length of time they remain dead further and further, they risk real danger and other unforeseen consequences.
Though Michael Bay seems to remain the film buff’s go-to pick for the ultimate “style over substance” director, I think Joel Schumacher gives him a serious run for his money. I won’t pick a “winner” between the two, though I do wonder if Bay’s career could’ve existed without the way that Schumacher paved the way.
I tend to think less of Schumacher as a filmmaker because Bay rarely displayed delusions of cinematic grandeur. With only a few exceptions, Bay seems to know that he makes popcorn flicks without serious dramatic aspirations.
On the other hand, Schumacher created more than a few flicks that shot for more than just one-dimensional fun and thrills. In 1985, St. Elmo’s Fire allowed Schumacher to pursue “voice of a generation” material ala The Big Chill, but all Schumacher managed was a fluffy piece of soap opera nonsense.
Flatliners gets into even deeper territory – in theory, at least. In reality, Schumacher just makes yet another glossy tale without any substance.
This seems like a massive misfire, as the issues of Flatliners come with real potential. We could - and should – find a tale that explores its notions in a meaningful, thought-provoking manner.
But that wouldn’t fit the stylized Schumacher palette, so instead, we find a movie that usually feels like a long music video. Rather than give the movie the needed sense of realism Schumacher brings us a moody, atmospheric piece that never connects with the material.
Honestly, if Flatliners hadn’t hit screens less than a month after Ghost, you’d assume Schumacher attempted to emulate the latter. Flatliners offers a semi-dreamy feel that evokes the tone of Ghost enough to make comparisons inevitable.
Though I never much liked Ghost, I think its atmospheric choices work for it, but they seem less logical for Flatliners. The subject matter demands a grittier, darker take.
Schumacher art directs Flatliners to the umpteenth degree and places the movie in a strange Art Deco world that makes little sense within the movie world. Again, this story seems like something that requires a bracing, reality-based feel, whereas Schumacher instead stages the film in a manner similar to the horror fantasy of his 1987 hit The Lost Boys.
Flatliners does provide a pretty impressive cast. In addition to Sutherland, we find Julia Roberts hot on the huge success of Pretty Woman as well as Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt.
All try their best to bring some life to their underwritten characters and the frothy shenanigans, but they can’t do much to make it work. The actors emote, emote and emote some more, all in the service of a story that doesn’t really care about their roles.
That’s because Flatliners becomes just another superficial and insubstantial cog in the Schumacher machine. The man made some decent movies over his career, but Flatliners doesn’t turn into one of them.