Year of Release: 1990
Director: Joel Schumacher
Length: 114 mins
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt
If Lost Boys was director Joe Schumacher’s Highway to Hell moment, Flatliners was his Back in Black. The 1990 blockbuster produced by Michael Douglas (yes, that one) and Rick Bieber, and distributed by Columbia Pictures, took its inspiration from a Jack London short story originally published in 1899 called A Thousand Deaths, which was about a patient being deliberately killed and resuscitated by a mad scientist. Propelled by an uber cool Brat Pack cast, on its theatrical release Flatliners was a smash hit, instantly claiming the No 1 slot at the Box Office and raking in a cool $10 million-plus on its opening weekend.
When medical student Nelson Wright (Sutherland) convinces a bunch of his classmates to help him discover what lies behind the veil of death, you know it’s all going to go wrong. They help him flatline (hence the title) and he ‘returns’ to verify that there is indeed something there. The classmates Joe (Baldwin), David (Bacon), Randy (Platt) and Rachel (Roberts) all decide to follow suit, and each have very different, but invariably harrowing experiences. After the experiments, they begin to suffer what they think are hallucinations, all related to some unresolved issue in their past. One-by-one the students confront the demons of their past, with some coming out of it better than others, eventually allowing them to move on with their lives. The overriding message here seems to concern coming to terms with the more tragic side of life, and learning how to learn and move on from it. Joel Schumacher was intrigued by the spiritual and horrific aspects of Flatliners, and enthused about the possibilities of creating a visually exciting film. He said: “[This] is a story about atonement and forgiveness involving these students who, in a sense, violate the gods and pay a price. I think we would all like to know what’s in store for us after we die. There have been thousands of reports from all over the world from those who have encountered ‘near death’, and most of them have reported pleasant experiences. Our movie, however, is saying that you’re not to tamper with death.”
Despite boasting a stellar cast, the movie has always proved divisive. As with many films of the era, in occasion it falls victim to being more about style than substance and for some reason never quite tapped into that all-forgiving nostalgic vibe. On Metacritic it’s score currently stands at a modest 55% from ten ‘mixed or average’ critical reviews, while on the same site its user rating is a much more healthy 9.2/10. The New York Times said, “Flatliners is a stylish, eerie psychological horror film laced with wit, a movie that thrives on its characters’ guilty secrets and succeeds on the strength of the director Joel Schumacher’s flair for just this sort of smart, unpretentious entertainment While at the other end of the spectrum, The Orlando Sentinel said, “Far-fetched as the premise is, I was willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt for the sake of the impressive cast. But as Flatliners rolled along, its pretentiousness became increasingly toxic.”
A perfect example, if ever there was one, of not being able to please all the people all the time.
In 2017, a new version was released, confusingly with the same name, which functions as both a remake and a stand-alone sequel. Repeating the pattern of the first film, reviews were generally negative, the general idea being that the movie once again failed to live up to an interesting premise. Despite this, again it proved to be a moderate Box Office success. Interestingly, a deleted scene from the movie establishes Kieffer Sutherland’s character Dr. Barry Wilson to be an older version of Nelson Wright having changed his name and begun living under a different identity.
Though they are all supposed to be approximately the same age, in actual fact Kevin Bacon was many years older than the rest of the main cast having made his film debut 12 years earlier in National Lampoon’s Animal House which, ironically, also starred Kiefer Sutherland’s father, Donald.