29th Sep2017

‘Flatliners’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton, Kiersey Clemons, Kiefer Sutherland | Written by Ben Ripley | Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

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Danish director Niels Arden Oplev is still best known for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (what, you mean you don’t remember Dead Man Down?), and he brings the same flat, TV movie aesthetic to this “sequel” to Joel Schumacher’s 1990 sci-horror. The original’s high concept plot is retained and given a 21st century makeover – although it’s still as hokey and dumb as Schumacher’s film, and once again fails to capitalise on its central conceit.

The premise of Flatliners is that a young med student, Courtney (Ellen Page), comes up with the bright idea of having her heart stopped, then started again, under controlled conditions. She employs the help of a group of fellow students, who see the experiment as a shortcut to bountiful medical careers. Their intention is to observe the netherworld between life and death. At first the flatlining is like an eye-opening drug, revelatory and psychedelic in equal measure. But they soon realise that certain, unwelcome aspects of their unconscious minds are revisiting them. Can they survive their unique hauntings, and make peace with the sins of their past?

Other pertinent questions include: Why do these ultra-rational scientists not make a written record of their experiences, rather than keeping them a secret? Why would a university medical centre have a spare, fully-functioning hospital in its basement, rather than a bunch of backup generators? Why does Courtney choose not to turn on any lights in her apartment when her dead sister starts to terrorise her? How much was Kiefer Sutherland paid to cameo in a movie concept which should have stayed dead?

Sutherland plays the students’ tutor. If he really is his character from the first film, it makes the students’ decision to follow the same path – ignorant to the events of 1990 – a ridiculous coincidence. But more importantly, Sutherland is a constant reminder that the 2017 cast cannot compare to the likes of him, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, William Baldwin et al. Page does her damndest, but Nina Dobrev (as the viciously career-driven Marlo) and Kiersey Clemons (as Sophia, whose story is the least coherent of all) are charisma black holes.

In their defence, the actors aren’t helped by a script which feels the need to clarify everything that we can see with our own eyes. “It’s like they’re on the same wavelength!” one character cries, as we clearly see two cavorting flatliners connecting on the same wavelength. For the greater part of the narrative, we are not being shown a story – we are being told of a series of tiresome backstories. And to think this is penned by the guy who wrote Source Code.

The death-trips themselves are flashy but artless in their execution: all sub-2001 cosmic tunnels and sub-Enter the Void floating camerawork. There are hints of Limitless in the mind-expanding initial effects of these journeys, but at bottom the flatlining device is arbitrary – it could be any mystical thing bringing back the sins of the protagonists’ past, be it a Ouija board, a séance, or a gypsy curse.

Deeper themes are mentioned in Flatliners but swiftly cast aside. We see one character idly scrolling through a “Is There An Afterlife?” blog, but no religious angle is ever even considered. Ray (Diego Luna), the one student who refuses to go under, refers once to potentially unfair academic advantages, but there’s never a sense that he feels any jealousy. And the big one – guilt – is treated as a simple on/off switch for the conscience, right to the end. No, instead of exploration, the not-so-deep dives are merely triggers for a series of tame, tension-free jump-scare sequences.

At times, the editing is bafflingly bad – whether it’s the laughably unexciting car chase from the medical centre (where neither security guards or CCTV seems capable of capturing a number plate); or the scene where Jamie (James Norton) gets his hand impaled after nearly drowning, and then we jump cut to him enjoying a drink with his buddies in a bar. What just happened? You’ll find that question to be a common refrain.

And what’s with the frankly awkward characterisation? There’s a weird and wildly unfunny scene in which a character’s mum can hear her daughter having sex in the next room, so she raps on the door to interrupt them and quieten them down. Creepier still is the moment when Ray opportunistically leans in for a kiss as a distraught, weeping woman explains how terrified she is – and it’s meant to be romantic.

Ending on an outrageously cheeseball note, with everything tied neatly in a sentimental bow, Flatliners will frustrate as it’s watched and be forgotten once it’s gone. It is at best a mediocre reboot of a mediocre movie, except now without the benefit of a luxury cast; and at worst it’s an aesthetically ugly, ineptly made, tonally misjudged mess. Just watch the It reboot again instead.

Flatliners is out now in cinemas.

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