Flatliners: A Good Day to Die …Then and Now

Human beings have an innate fascination with death. Sigmund Freud once argued that we are born with a death drive. This drive, thanatos,  was characterized by a reckless pursuit of self-destruction. While horror films often revolve around death, another common theme is humanity’s interference with nature. From Frankenstein to Re-Animator, horror has often explored the consequences of our desire to control the natural forces around us.

Joel Schumacher’s modest 1990 box office hit, Flatliners, gave audiences a ‘Brat-pack’-lite version of this theme. Kiefer Sutherland’s ‘Nelson Wright’, an arrogant medical student, wants to learn the secrets of death. Along with several colleagues, Sutherland ‘flatlines’ to have a near-death experience before being brought back. Given that Flatliners is a horror film, no one but the actual characters are surprised when something awful returns with them.

Having ransacked the ’80’s horror catalogue in the 2000’s, Hollywood eventually turned its attention to the 1990’s. In 2017, Flatliners got its remake. Like the original film, the Flatliners remake stacked its cast with several bright young actors. But how does it compare to the original?

Flatliners (1990) Offered 90’s Audiences Light Frights

Following his success with The Lost Boys, Joel Schumacher would quickly return to the horror genre with Flatliners. Featuring a cast of hot young-and-upcoming stars that included Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt, Flatliners proved to be a modest box office hit. It was also one of those movies that sharply divided critics and audiences.

Flatliners’ story of medical students experimenting with ‘life after death’ was hip horror-lite for the early 1990’s. While Peter Fiaridi’s screenplay bases its horror around the confrontation of guilt and our sins in the afterlife, there’s not much depth to the concept. Instead Flatliners uses the idea to set up safe jolts and scares. And that’s the basic thrust of Flatliners – safe scares for general audiences in darkened movie theatres. This is fun popcorn horror that lets you walk out after the credits without feeling unsettled.

This is fun popcorn horror that let’s you walk out after the credits without feeling unsettled.

The strengths of Flatliners lies in Schumacher’s slick direction and the strong cast. Love him or hate him, Schumacher knows how to stage his action and suspense scenes with style. He also uses colour and blue tinting to give the characters’ visions a nightmarish quality. If the material is a little superficial, the cast is more than up to the task of elevating it. Sutherland brings the same intensity to his role as he did as Jack Bauer in 24. Both Kevin Bacon and Julia Roberts are excellent with Bacon’s ‘David’ representing the moral core. Oliver Platt capably adds some levity, not unlike his role in Lake Placid. It’s a fun and diverting movie with little depth or tension.

Flatliners (2017) Offers More of the Same

In spite of its interesting premise, the original Flatliners was by no means a classic. In fact, this is probably one of those rare cases where a remake has an opportunity to re-imagine a concept. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and starring Ellen Page, Diego Luna, and Nina Dobrev, the Flatliners remake hit theatres in September 2017. The remake fared even worse with critics, taking a critical drubbing on Rotten Tomatoes.

First, the Flatliners remake is nowhere near as awful as its Tomatometer suggests on Rotten Tomatoes. Like the original film, Flatliners is guilty of lacking any genuine scares or suspense. Aside from a few cheap jump scares, Flatliners plays it very safe. As a result, the remake never creates any sustainable tension. There was one surprise in the movie that caught me off guard, but at no point did I ever doubt that things would wrap up nicely.

Most importantly, Ben Ripley’s updated screenplay sticks to the original’s simplistic ‘atonement’ approach for past sins.

Perhaps where Flatliners truly falters is in its refusal to diverge from the original movie. The ‘sins’ of the main characters are updated for time period – Ellen Page’s ‘Courtney’ is responsible for a car crash while texting that killed her sister. A few other plot points are altered here and there, but the end destination remains the same. Most importantly, Ben Ripley’s updated screenplay sticks to the original’s simplistic ‘atonement’ approach for past sins. No effort is made to delve deeper with the source material. This leaves the remake feeling like just a glossier update when there was real potential to offer a new twist.

Original Or Remake? Take Your Pick

Flatliners presented the rare opportunity for a remake to re-imagine what was a promising, if not underwelmingly executed, concept. In a strange move, the remake opted to make largely cosmetic changes. By and large, the remake maintains the original’s simplistic morality angle intact. The result is two similar and largely inoffensively diverting efforts that will have different appeals depending on your age. Younger audiences will prefer the updated Flatliners, while older viewers will enjoy the nostalgia of the original film. Neither film is bad, but you’re not likely to add either one to your favourite’s list.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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