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.
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.
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.
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.’”
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.
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