(R, Columbia Pictures, 115 mins., theatrical release date: August 10, 1990)
"It's a good day to die," broods the aspiring Norse God of Medicine, Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland). A cocky gunner eager to know the true nature of the Afterlife, Nelson recruits four of his fellow undergrads for a radical, risky experiment in which he will temporarily shake off his mortal coil through hypodermics and heat blankets. The EKG screen will not detect a heartbeat for thirty seconds, leaving only the vertical line of death. If his accomplices can resuscitate him back into consciousness, Nelson will have conclusive knowledge about the out-of-body experience. If not, then consider him the freshest cadaver on campus.
Somewhere between life and death, between heaven and hell, between St. Elmo's Fire and Final Destination, that is where you'll find Flatliners. The early 1990s was a glorious period for morbid mainstream movies about the Great Beyond. In particular, Bruce Joel Rubin busted this theme wide open with his scripts for both Ghost and Jacob's Ladder, but it was first time writer Peter Filardi who devised the premise for this one. The director is Joel Schumacher, fresh off of St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys, working with a new batch of rising stars but otherwise up to his tawdry old tricks. Although the setting is Chicago, this may as well be "the murder capital of the world" all over again, and the pompous main characters do like to spend their nights at the bar after a hard night of cheating death. Give ‘em a little drop more.
Nelson's lab partners include Rachel Mannus (Julia Roberts), the obligatory love interest with maternal bedside manner; resident atheist David Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), who gets a four-month suspension for performing noble if unauthorized gynecological surgery on a dying woman; sleazy womanizer Joe Hurley (William Baldwin), who is tasked with filming the experiments using the same camcorder he uses to covertly record his many conquests; and portly philosopher Randy Steckle (Oliver Platt), the requisite voice of deadpan, comical reason. They converge in what appears to be an abandoned, spherical chapel flown over from the Renaissance, less the University of Illinois or even the Art Institute of Chicago and more of a Dan Brown fever dream of higher education.
Once Nelson is successfully revived after thirty seconds in the Void, his skeptical colleagues prove overzealously eager to not just recreate the experience, but to bid on who can last the longest in limbo. Rachel and Joe are the first to argue, but it is he who wins the next slot on the slab, and once again the results prove successful. Unfortunately, Nelson and Joe start to have recurring, guilt-addled hallucinations related to the lives which flashed before them in death, and withhold their anxieties until after David and Rachel subsequently take their turns.
Flatliners takes the notion of how your life flashes before your eyes in the throes of death and places it in the actual being of non-existence. Furthermore, it finds a pop psychological spin on the theme of being tormented by your sins. The first two times look innocent enough for Nelson and Joe, as the former experiences a reverie of childhood straight out of a marketing firm brainstorming session and the latter is surrounded by buxom models in what could pass a Herb Ritts-directed interlude (you could easily imagine Chris Isaak or Madonna singing in your head). Eventually, both Filardi the scripter and Schumacher the stylist grow more and more inspired by the Nightmare on Elm Street series, as waking life segues into ghastly fantasy. Nelson is haunted by a figure in a red-hooded sweatshirt attacking him with a hockey stick, an image straight out of 1970s bad kid cinema. David is also confronted by his childhood cruelty in the form of an ostracized black girl, whilst Rachel encounters the ghost of her daddy, a junkie Vietnam vet who committed post-traumatic suicide.
The combination of the graven and garish manifests a kind of navel-gazing pretentiousness that makes Flatliners a chore to sit through. If Schumacher was aiming for camp, he's much less assured here than he was in The Lost Boys. Recall how Kiefer Sutherland relished the head vampire role in that film with a demonic zest that made his performance less like a deliberate pose, creepy and charismatic in equally-calibrated measure. In Flatliners, Sutherland is unable to balance the scales, sinking into a one-note solemnity which is good for conveying nervousness but not investment. His vulnerability seems like a put-on, a bratty defense mechanism rather than something natural to the character. Compared to the subtle touches of humanism found in his co-stars Bacon and Roberts, Sutherland's velvet-throated authority is wasted.
William Baldwin and Oliver Platt are equally misused, essaying the two characters who don't seem to pull their weight amongst the drama. It's all too easy to peg Baldwin's Joe Hurley as a fictitious cheap shot at St. Elmo's Fire star Rob Lowe, and whilst his sexist ego is dutifully detonated, there's no satisfactory pay-off to Hurley other than his debasement. Platt is pithy and witty as Steckle, but underplays to a deadly degree that he becomes nothing more than a mere lackey.
The best performances in the film belong to Kevin Bacon and Julia Roberts in a role that preceded her Pretty Woman fame in production if not exposure. Bacon tempers his madness with vulnerability and rational cool, whilst Roberts knows how to play a potential moment of empty schmaltz close to the bone and frequently comes up aces. Their romantic liaison doesn't exactly cause for a lot of sparks, and is as superficial as most of the screenplay's attitude, but these two stars give the movie whatever soul is buried under the artifice.
Alas, Schumacher's forte in lurid overkill makes drags the film down into inconsequence. A film concerned with Big Questions and Life-or-Death Stakes needs someone less concerned with making every frame as grossly literal as possible. Compare Flatliners to Adrian Lyne's work on Jacob's Ladder for an example of how you temper rock-video flashiness with honest-to-goodness tension and the thrill of the mystery. Schumacher surrounds himself with technical craftsmen who bring out the symbolism and style with reckless abandon, including cinematographer Jan De Bont and production designer Eugenio Zanetti among others, but these prove to be eyesores once you realize they are the norm. There are a few moments of simplistically surreal unease, particularly when Nelson walks alone through the town (watch out for those cyclists) and chases a dog down into a sewer, which hint at the kind of restraint Schumacher would've done better to harness. It's also Sutherland's finest moment in the entire film.
If Flatliners had demonstrated as much care and detail in the characters as it does in the settings, which doesn't so much parallel the students' brash decision to play God as much as it points the finger and laughs, this movie could've been on to something brilliant and affecting. Imagine this as a hired gun project for someone like David Cronenberg, and Flatliners becomes even more of a tragedy in hindsight.