Flatliners (2017)

SEPTEMBER 30, 2017


Full disclosure, right off the bat - someone pulled a fire alarm during my showing of Flatliners and we had to file out with about twenty minutes left in the film. As I was not particularly enjoying it to that point, the idea of going back to watch it all again just to see what I missed seemed absurd (especially at this time of the year), so I had someone fill me in on how it ended up. If that means you cannot accept my opinion of the film, then feel free to shut the page now. But don't tell me I'm being "unprofessional" - I paid to see the movie and since the whole theater had to file out there were like 1000 people waiting for their complimentary tickets, and I had less interest in waiting in that line than I did in seeing the rest of the film. The following critiques are still valid, and seeing the ending instead of having it described in detail would not have made a difference.

Anyway, your guess is as good as mine as to why Sony opted to remake Flatliners, of all the things in their library. I know they've pulled some questionable moves in the past, such as with Total Recall, but at least that was a much bigger hit in its day, had room to explore (it was based very loosely on a short story, so they could have tried a straighter adaptation), and if nothing else could let Len Wiseman do his action thing with a big budget and appealing cast. Flatliners, on the other hand, was a minor hit from that same year (the Total Recall remake was five years ago already, if you can believe it), so it doesn't have the same longevity or name value. All it really had was the hook - med students purposely dying to see what's on the other side, then being revived to share their experiences - only they all bring back the ghosts of their haunted pasts. A great concept to be sure, but not one that needs to be retold in a PG-13 manner (and, curiously, on an even lower budget, which has to be a first for a studio remake).

In fact I wouldn't have even bothered with it at all if not for the fact that it was actually designed to be a stealth sequel of sorts to the original, as opposed to a traditional remake. Kiefer Sutherland was cast in the film as the same character (Nelson) he played in the 1990 film, so I found that to be an interesting angle and figured it was worth a look on the strength of that alone. He appears a few times as the Chief of Staff (or whatever, I'm not good with job titles - a guy in charge at any rate) that's guiding our new heroes through med school, but I kept waiting to see when he'd be like "Hey, you guys are hacks - me and my friends did this 27 years ago!", as there was seemingly no reference to his past or even that their experiment had been done before. It wasn't until Monday morning that I got my answer; apparently, test screening audiences found the connection too confusing (apparently he didn't make his history clear until the end of the film, which even I have to admit is a bizarre approach to take), and so it was dropped. I believe someone refers to him as Nelson at one point, but I might have just misheard as he is credited as Barry Wolfson (and that's the name on his labcoat), so let's just assume I heard it wrong and that they have successfully scrubbed the final cut of any connection to the original, making it the straight up remake I didn't want to see in the first place, with Sutherland's casting now just appearing as a gimmick, like Andrea Martin playing the house mother in Black Xmas, or Sean Connery showing up as the King in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

So now it's just a remake, and a rather dull one at that. As with the original, the students are all plagued by visions of people they've wronged in the past when they come back from the dead, though they're at least slightly different stories (and the characters themselves are different, though Diego Luna's character never flatlines, much like Oliver Platt's in the original). However, the changes aren't really that drastic; there's another bullying incident, but this time it was cyber-bullying where one of our heroes shared nude photos of a rival classmate in order to humiliate her. And instead of one guy losing his fiance due to his sexual habits, our William Baldwin stand-in is wracked with guilt over one of his many one night stands resulting in a pregnancy that was aborted (and he was too chicken to even go to the clinic with her). Julia Roberts blamed herself for her father's death, and here it's Ellen Page blaming herself over her sister's death. The only exception is Nina Dobrev's character, who screwed up at the hospital one night and killed someone by giving him the wrong medication, and I can't help but wish they tied ALL of their regrets into their life as med students, as it would help differentiate between it and the original.

Another big change is that when they come back they've also unlocked parts of their brain a bit. Page's character is able to recall everything she's ever learned, Kiersey Clemons' character becomes uninhibited, and another guy starts being more intuitive and "seeing" people. But then they inexplicably drop this idea once everyone starts having their visions, and it ultimately has zero bearing on anything. It reminded me a bit of the Rob Zombie Halloween in that way, where even if it wasn't all working they were at least trying something new, but seemingly got cold feet and decided to just copy the original more and more as the film went on. There is one major change (spoiler ahead, but without specifics!), in that one of them is killed for good at a certain point, whereas all five of them survived in the original, but while it's a good shock when it occurs, as with the "unlocked brain" stuff it fails to have any real weight on what happens after.

But don't worry, if you haven't seen the original or completely forget it*, you'll just be merely bored by the damn thing. It's not even really a horror movie for the most part; they have some freaky visions in the back half but there is very little immediate danger, and there's a disconnect that makes some of the scares just a total cheat. For example, the guy haunted by his cowardice re: abortion is haunted by the ghost of that one-time lover, and at one point she stabs his hand - but later we learn she's not even dead, so I'm not sure how she has a vengeful ghost to chase him around (or, exactly why it came back when he flatlined). Dobrev gets the bulk of the scare scenes since her visions are of someone who is actually dead and has a reason to be mad at her, but they're all the generic kind of modern studio horror scares where a creepy person will suddenly appear next to our hero and then disappear again - it gets tiresome, even in a movie that has limited such occasions. In fact many of them seem like they were just added in to give the trailer editors something to work with.

The acting is equally inconsistent; Luna's character is all "We must stop this, this is insane!" one minute, and then laughing/dancing with the others to celebrate the latest successful flatline the next. Though that might be the result of what seems to be a hasty post-production and/or reshoots, as they obviously had to tinker to remove the sequel aspect to it, and there are other signs of sloppiness - there are at least two scenes where the aspect ratio changes a bit, as if they forgot to apply the same masking to every shot. There's also a sixth med student, Brad, who seems like he was supposed to play a bigger role at one point, but disappears for so long that I forgot who he was when he briefly reappeared in a later scene. Maybe for Blu-ray they will have a longer cut or deleted scenes that flesh out some of this stuff, but I don't think it will be enough to save it.

Then again maybe there isn't anything else except for Kiefer's reveal. The trailer doesn't have anything that didn't end up in the movie (almost a guarantee for such occasions - see Diego Luna's last big film - Rogue One - for an example), so it's very possible that the script (by Ben Ripley, who wrote the engaging and entertaining Source Code) was more interesting at first and it got rewritten to the point of having no identity by the time they started shooting it. Either way it's a shame; the cast is good and even if he's not exactly an iconic character it would have been cool to see how Nelson was living his life all these years later, but for whatever reason, the film we got is the worst kind of remake: there's not enough difference to justify its existence, and everyone's too competent to make it an entertaining fiasco. It's just THERE, as indifferent as the audience who barely seemed to care when they were asked to leave before it limped to its conclusion.

What say you?

*I'm not a huge fan of it either; it's fine, and the dead kid beating the shit out Kiefer scared me a lot when I was eleven, but I've barely thought about it since.


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