Thursday, May 19, 2011

Flatliners

Flatliners (1990) may be best remembered as a film that featured a cast of young actors either on the cusp of being bonafide movie stars (William Baldwin) or who were already there (Julia Roberts). Featuring the likes of Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon, you’d be hard pressed to assemble this cast now but back then the film’s director Joel Schumacher had the Midas touch, making his name with the Brat Pack dramedy St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) and the popcorn thrill ride cum horror film The Lost Boys (1987). Flatliners was an attempt at more serious, weightier fare albeit filtered through his commercial sensibilities. It features a top notch premise: five medical students attempt to cheat death by killing themselves for several minutes so as to uncover any evidence of an afterlife. However, once they’re revived what they experienced while dead comes back to literally haunt them.


Flatliners came out at a time when Hollywood was fascinated with death and the afterlife as similarly-themed films Ghost (1990) and Jacob’s Ladder (1990) all came out in the same year. Flatliners resides somewhere in the middle as it shares some of the romantic aspirations and notions of forgiveness with Ghost while also including some of the otherworldly thriller aspects of Jacob’s Ladder. Art directed within an inch of its life by Schumacher, Flatliners was a commercial success (with that cast how could it not?) and received mostly positive notices. It has by and large disappeared from the public consciousness only to pop up occasionally on television. I’ve always been fascinated by its overtly stylish look and its thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Actually, all of the main characters typify the materialistic “me generation” that came of age in the 1980’s. I also admire Peter Filardi’s awkward attempts to tackle substantial issues, like life after death, bullying, and infidelity, in his screenplay even if he isn’t always successful or we’re distracted by Jan de Bont’s atmospheric cinematography.

Schumacher sets the right tone visually as he introduces the film’s central protagonist, Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland), clad in the ‘80s uniform of sunglasses, trenchcoat and black shirt and pants because, y’know, he’s a got a dark side. The camera zooms in on Nelson who says to no one in particular, “Today is a good day to die.” While all of this is happening, the soundtrack blasts an ominous beat straight out of a John Carpenter film only to inject a pretentious choir vocalizing over top. Fortunately, we’re spared any more of this sonic claptrap as Schumacher slam edits us right in the middle of an emergency room as David Labraccio (Kevin Bacon) frantically tries to save a poor woman in bad shape. She’s wheeled into a room so painfully stark white that it resembles the strange bedroom at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Labraccio is a brilliant but impulsive medical student who goes ahead and saves the patient’s life anyway when the doctor doesn’t show up fast enough. He is the brilliant yet angry rebel. He’s such a non-conformist that when Nelson goes looking for him he finds the guy rappelling out his dorm window and down the side of the building because, y’know, he doesn’t have time for the stairs.

Rachel Mannus (Julia Roberts) is the smart med student who keeps her colleagues at a distance. She’s fascinated with life after death because her father committed suicide. Rachel does rounds in a ward with a few elderly patients whom she dotes on, hoping to get some insight into what it’s like to be so close to death. The romance between Labraccio and Rachel feels tacked on. In one scene, they’re good friends and in another they’re sleeping in bed together. It feels like a scene was edited out somewhere in post-production that showed them getting together. Joe Hurley (William Baldwin) is the ladies man with a thing for videotaping his many conquests in-between classes with his fellow med students. Joe’s past is the weakest of the bunch because of its abrupt conclusion. He only seems remorseful because he got caught.

Nelson is a master manipulator who knows exactly what to say to the four other med students so that they will help kill himself all in the name of fame and fortune – oh, and science, of course (that’s merely a side effect). We are introduced to Randy Steckle (Oliver Platt) repeatedly reciting his future job title as he is already self-mythologizing himself. The film quickly and efficiently establishes the main characters and everyone but poor Steckle gets a backstory that provides motivation for why they are willing to kill themselves for a glimpse of the afterlife. I guess, since he’s the only one who doesn’t die and is then resuscitated, he gets marginalized, which is too bad because Oliver Platt is such an intriguing actor to watch and he’s basically reduced to the role of whiney complainer with the occasional comic relief. He is the handwringing Mother Hen with a sarcastic sense of humor, like when he calls Nelson on his ulterior motives for what he’s doing: “This isn’t for mankind, this is for Nelson. Why do I suddenly see you on 60 Minutes sandwiched in-between Andy Rooney and a Subaru commercial?”

Kiefer Sutherland is a little too good at playing a Preppie prick (also see Bright Lights, Big City) as Nelson is an egomaniac looking to make a name for himself. He has never been afraid to play unlikable characters (see Stand by Me or Mirrors) and despite his karmic comeuppance, there is no real indication that Nelson will change all that much despite gaining closure on his past. There is a delicious irony that we get to see a little kid kick the crap out of him – something I’m sure we won’t see on his career reel if the American Film Institute ever decides to celebrate his filmography. One can see what might have drawn Sutherland to this role as he gets to literally shed his pretty boy image by becoming increasingly battered and scarred over the course of the film. Kevin Bacon is good as the skeptic who goes under in order to put his atheism to the test. He plays the voice of reason. Blessed with his family’s good look, William Baldwin is well-cast as the narcissistic pretty boy. The success of this film led to him headlining Ron Howard’s ode to firefighters, Backdraft (1991) and Sliver (1993), an erotic thriller with Sharon Stone. Julia Roberts makes for a credible caregiver but I don’t quite buy her as a brilliant med student.

Flatliners features one ridiculously over-art directed set after another. For example, the room where our med student protagonists practice on cadavers resembles the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not a med school, but it does look fantastic and creates a semi-solemn mood with its impressive-looking Gothic architecture. Check out Nelson’s “apartment” with its high ceilings, ornate paneling and stunning window frames that look like it came out of an Architectural Digest magazine photoshoot. How does a med student afford a place like that? Of course, he could be a trust fund baby born with a silver spoon in his mouth. In case we didn’t get the whole life and death thing that the main characters wrestle with through the entire film, Schumacher makes sure we do by repeatedly lingering on statues of angels and an engraving of a man in a tug of war with Death while that damn choir sings on the soundtrack again! Hell, we even get a shot of Nelson standing right next to a statute with angel wings. Ok, Schumacher, we get it! The night scenes feature slick city streets and smoke billowing in the background for no apparent reason but it does look cool.

The film’s concept of the afterlife consists of the sins of our past – with Nelson it is accidentally killing a young boy when he was a child; Labraccio verbally abused a little girl when he was in grade school; for Rachel it was witnessing her father committing suicide; and for Joe it is all of his sexual conquests coming back to haunt him. Flatliners equates going to the afterlife with an adrenaline rush – the ultimate extreme sport. The flatline/afterlife sequences are obviously the highlight of the film and are beautifully shot by then-cinematographer, later film director, Jan de Bont who expertly utilizes the widescreen frame. He helps give the streets of Chicago a nightmarish look right out of Dante’s Inferno with alleyway fires and then switches to a cool blue look when Nelson goes through a maze of underground passages in the city subway system.

Labraccio’s afterlife sequence looks frightening enough as it takes place on an atmospherically-lit subway but becomes unintentionally funny when he is trash-talked by a little black girl. It’s supposed to be scary but illicits belly laughs as opposed to chills. Much more successful is Rachel’s nightmarish visions of her father’s suicide. She interrupts him in a bathroom saturated with hellish red light as he shoots himself up with heroin. Roberts’ reaction to this primal scene is pretty bad as her attempt at emoting fails. The most extravagant afterlife sequences are reserved for Nelson, of course, because he is the central protagonist. His childhood nemesis is much more intimidating because of his vengeful demeanor.

Then-unknown Boston screenwriter Peter Filardi got the idea for Flatliners in 1988 based on two sources of inspiration. A close friend of his had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia after an operation and had a near-death experience. Filardi was shaken up by what had happened and it “shook up my imagination too.” He realized that death hadn’t really been explored for his twentysomething generation and thought, “What is more intriguing than death itself?” He wrote the script during the Irangate scandal and the United States elections with words like “accountability” being used a lot. From this, he conceived of a group of “young, ‘90s kids who would learn a lesson,” from experimenting with death. He researched medical technology and CPR techniques. Filardi wrote the first draft in two months but wasn’t sure if it was ready to be read. He continued to work on it while writing screenplays for television.

Meanwhile, his former agent Ben Conway shopped the Flatliners script around Hollywood in January 1989 where it quickly became a hot commodity with a six-figure bidding war breaking out among several major producers. In one week, five bids were received with producer Scott Rudin, who had a production deal with Columbia Pictures, coming out on top. However, he reportedly violated protocol by bidding against another producer on the lot – Michael Douglas and his production company Stonebridge Entertainment. Then studio president Dawn Steel stepped in and gave the project to Douglas while Rudin left Columbia for Paramount Studios. Douglas sent the script to director Joel Schumacher during the summer of ’89. The director was in pre-production on his passion project, an adaptation of the Phantom of the Opera, but found himself drawn to the themes of atonement and forgiveness in Filardi’s script.

Schumacher was hired to direct and worked with Filardi to fine-tune the script, including changing the setting. The screenwriter had originally set it in his hometown of Boston but the director changed it to Chicago because he preferred the locations. Filardi also originally envisioned a more realistic approach but Schumacher went for a more Gothic look. Before the start of principal photography, Filardi asked Schumacher about this and the director told him, “I want the film to look as daring as the characters are daring.” To his credit, the director had the screenwriter on set every day doing rewrites when necessary and listening to actors’ suggestions, sometimes incorporating them into the dialogue. To prepare for the film, Schumacher read books on near-death experiences and listened to tapes of people relating their experiences. The cast did some medical research and acquired video tapes of medical procedures. There was also a doctor and a nurse on standby when the actors were on set dealing with needles and CPR equipment.

Flatliners enjoyed most positive reviews among mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “There were some hazards in this project – with the wrong note, they easily could look silly – and yet they take their chances and pull it off. Flatliners is an original, intelligent thriller, well-directed by Joel Schumacher. In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “But when taken on its own stylish terms, Flatliners is greatly entertaining. Viewers are likely to go along with this film instantly or else ridicule it to death. Its atmospheric approach doesn't admit much middle ground. The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Flatliners is a heart-stopping, breathtakingly sumptuous haunted house of a movie that takes off where Dracula and Dante left off and CPR began.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “The cast is similarly exemplary, a quintet of outstanding equals, and for all the deadliness of its conservative conclusion, Peter Filardi’s script, his first to be produced, is alive with smart med school talk.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “Director Joel Schumacher taps his strengths: the ensemble work of St. Elmo’s Fire combined with the neo-gothic scares of The Lost Boys.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Julia Roberts' fans will be disappointed to see that her follow-up to Pretty Woman (this one was made before anyone knew she was a star) is such a dud, and that she has a relatively minor role in it. The part doesn't give her much of a chance — but then she doesn't do much with it except to stand around and look beautiful and concerned.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington felt that the cast was trapped “in this great cavernous museum of a movie, with a dry little pea of an idea rattling down echoing hallways. It almost seems a cheat that the filmmakers don't show any inkling that emptiness and flashy camp may tinge their ‘philosophy.’”

It may seem like I’m criticizing Flatliners for its unrealistic stylistic flourishes but they are an important reason why I continue to be fascinated with this film after all these years. It is such a product of its times and has a fantastic premise as well. It’s hard to sympathize with most of these characters because they are self-absorbed in nature and so it is up to the actors and their natural charisma to get us to care about what happens to them, hence the casting of people like Bacon, Roberts and Sutherland who were all popular movie stars at the time. Roberts and Sutherland in particular were front and center on the pop culture radar having recently become romantically involved during filming. Ultimately, Flatliners is about sins that must be absolved and perceived guilt that must be eliminated. Both of which stem from their respective childhoods. Once they confront the sources of these issues and apologize or get closure only then are they able to be redeemed.

 
For further reading, check out Erich Kuersten's awesome review over at his blog, Acidemic. His article is actually what inspired me to write my own.


SOURCES

Emerson, Jim. “To Sutherland Work is More Than a Job.” Orange County Register. August 7, 1990.

Fox, David J. “Flatliners Rookie Writer Hits It Big.” Los Angeles Times. August 7, 1990.

Stanley, John. “Flatliners New Writer is Dead-On.” San Francisco Chronicle. August 5, 1990.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “At the Movies: Life and Death.” The New York Times. August 10, 1990.

11 comments:

  1. Hi J.D.

    I have to admit, I really admire Flatliners; visual and thematic excesses and all.

    I agree that the Gothic look is as daring as the characters' activities, and I think it is a suitable choice in a story about the mysteries of life and death that the production design reaches for the grand...and the ominous.

    But more than that, I appreciated Flatliners' attempt to diagram, thmeatically, a universe of essentially moral dimension.

    This was something that was happening a lot in the horror films of the year 1990, from Flatliners, to The Exorcist III, to Ghost, to Soultaker. It was like the wake-up from the Yuppie 1980s dream, to misquote Johnny Byrne (who wrote about the 1970s as wake-up from the hippie dream).

    In the world of Flatliners (and these other films), immoral decisions have consequences to the soul, and characters must make a choice about the way they want to live. I appreciate this tack, and the idea of a (pop) cultural wake-up call after the "Greed is Good" 1980s. I find it unique to that time period, really, and eminently worthwhile given some of what we saw in the late eighties.

    As always, your excellent writing/retrospective has made me want to watch another film all over again. Even if I like this particular film more than you did, in this instance.

    best,
    JKM

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  2. I havent seen this one in, damn, far too long. The cast is freaking awesome though, is there a film that gathers this many 80's stars in only one film? St. Elmos Fire comes to mind...but damn, everybody in this film went on to have great careers on television and film.

    Thematically, I like what the film is talking about, what happens after death is a fascinating subject any day of the week. Give this theme to a different director and an entirley different film will pop up. Ideas of what happens after we die can go anywhere...because in my opinion, nobody really knows.

    I guess this one went down a pseudo christian path, with the whole thing about their sins haunting them in the afterlife, and their fears. I liked how it laced it all with the scientific\medical angle.

    I'd enjoy revisiting this one...kind of makes you wonder what the hell happened to Schumacher dont it? I mean. "Blood Creek" was such a load of shit! But I guess the dude IS pretty old...and directors (with very few exceptions) tend to loose their touch when they get older I guess.

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  3. Back in 1990 in Boston, I remember picking this movie without knowing anything about and being totally satisfied by its energy and its striking imagery. This is a forgotten gem worth remembering. Well done.

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  4. John Kenneth Muir:

    Hey! Maybe it seemed like I was being a bit too harsh on FLATLINERS. I do like it a lot, warts and all. I think its the flaws that continue to fascinate me.

    "I appreciated Flatliners' attempt to diagram, thmeatically, a universe of essentially moral dimension."

    Agreed. Alto, this is where the film gets a bit dodgy, also. I don't think the script is entirely successful to examining these themes in a truly meaningful way. It certainly is trying to but doesn't quite do it, for me, at least.


    "In the world of Flatliners (and these other films), immoral decisions have consequences to the soul, and characters must make a choice about the way they want to live. I appreciate this tack, and the idea of a (pop) cultural wake-up call after the "Greed is Good" 1980s. I find it unique to that time period, really, and eminently worthwhile given some of what we saw in the late eighties."

    Well said! I certainly agree with what you're saying here and maybe that's part of what I grativate towards.


    The Film Connoisseur:

    Yeah, the cast is pretty impressive - you certainly could afford to assemble them all now. Roberts' pricetag alone would be prohibitive.

    I am fascinated by the whole life after death thing as well and that certainly is a big draw for me with this film.

    As for Schumacher, I think the BATMAN films really hurt his career. He really took a public beating on those ones but I do enjoy a few he did after, namely FALLING DOWN and TIGERLAND, which I think are pretty interesting films.


    Hokahey:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the nice comments. I agree with you about it being a forgetten gem.

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  5. J.D.: I will admit this film unerved me, and I've never forgotten it over the years. The whole flatliner thing first grabbed my attention in a creepy episode of Rod Serling's NIGHT GALLERY titled "The Dead Man," where the same subject examined in FLATLINERS is amplified further with the power of suggestion.

    I always found much of FLATLINERS horrifying, and the cast puts on quite a show. As you note in the terrific piece there was a kind of obsession in Hollywood at the time with afterlife movies, and I thought this and the more comedic GHOST were the best of the lot.

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  6. Thank you my brother, this was an awesome review, and brought back lots of shiver-inducing memories. Good work bringing back the initial critical responses. It's odd that Owen G. would trash the film based on it not being more of a Julia Roberts movie. He's usually not such a tool, but it's cool of Roger Ebert to recognize a good 'popcorn' flick for what it is, and not get mad that Richard Gere doesn't show up with some nice roses.

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  7. Sam Juliano:

    Thank you for bringing up that NIGHT GALLERY episode! I have yet to see it but am intrigued based on your recommendation.

    Good to see another admirer of this film. As always, thank you for stopping. Much appreciated, my friend!


    Erich Kuersten:

    Hey! Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, I go either way with Owen G.'s reviews. Sometimes he "gets it" - other times he's way off base. But then most critics are like that - even J. Hoberman whom I admire a helluva lot. It did not surprise me that Ebert dug the film. It seems like something right up his alley.

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  8. Falling Down is my favorite movie of his, followed by The Lost Boys. Falling Down makes up for all his mishaps, to me it's an electrifying film, everyone should see it.

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  9. The Film Connoisseur:

    Yeah, FALLING DOWN is pretty badass and definitely is one of Schumacher's best films to date.

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  10. " This movie was all about journeying into the after life & finding out about life after death. 4 out of the 5 med students went Flatline. My comment is mainly about Billy Baldwin's character Joe Hurley.
    Everyone else had relevant & haunting after death experiences from Rachel's father committing suicide to Nelson's childhood nemesis Billy Mahoney meeting his doom & haunting Nelson. But what I don't understand is the premise of relativity of death experiences & then you have Joe Hurley for which he has no death related experiences that are horrible & soaked in terror like the other 3 flatlined cohorts in the film. Joe Hurley's sequence had nothing to do with life after death experiences & his segment was based solely on perverted based current & ongoing sexual encounters. I thought this movie was all about their past of death or near death experiences coming back to haunt them. Joe Hurley had no death experiences like Rachel Mannis or Nelson Wright or David Labraccio's characters all did. Joe's was purely sexual in nature & everyone in his VHS tape collection never met an untimely death at the hands of Joe. So the fact that Steckle never flatlined & Joe Hurley's flatlining experiences failed to show any death causing experiences to unfold then that is the weakest & irrelevant & poorly written portion of this movie.

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    1. Good point! Yeah, Joe's character kinda seems like the odd person out. His personal demons aren't as interesting or as relevant as everyone else's and does feel a bit tacked on.

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