Flatliners is an unmemorable redux hampered by poor writing and a general lack of thrills that fails to capture the attention of its audience.
Medical student Courtney Holmes (Ellen Page) is fascinated by the concept of the afterlife and what happens to people after they die. Recruiting her colleagues Jamie (James Norton), Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), Marlo (Nina Dobrev), and Ray (Diego Luna), Courtney organizes an “extracurricular project” where she undergoes a procedure to experience death for a short period of time before being revived. Courtney views the experiment as an opportunity for her and her friends to find a real breakthrough in their field and further advance their fledging careers. After Courtney flatlines, she demonstrates improved cognitive abilities, which entices the others (except Ray) to go through with the procedure as well.
The positive effects of flatlining are unfortunately short-lived, as the group is soon haunted by what appear to be visions and hallucinations based on secrets from their past they saw in the afterlife. What could have been a revolutionary scientific discovery quickly becomes a life-threatening risk for all involved, and the students have to find a way to make it all stop, or they could suffer severe consequences.
Though billed as a sequel to the 1990 cult hit of the same name, 2017’s Flatliners plays more as a remake of the earlier psychological horror film than a continuation of its predecessor’s story – complete with an all-new cast of characters at the forefront and few connections to the original. While this ensures familiarity with the workings of the first film isn’t a necessity to grasp the new version, it does beg the question of what exactly the point of all this was by the time the credits roll. Flatliners is an unmemorable redux hampered by poor writing and a general lack of thrills that fails to capture the attention of its audience.
The screenplay, credited to Ben Ripley, is arguably Flatliners‘ weakest link. Its first act is awkwardly designed, consisting of disconnected scenes that attempt to introduce the ensemble and their dynamics before the action heats up. This gives the early going a sense of disjointedness, as the opening minutes do little to hook viewers and establish some kind of emotional investment. Ripley and director Niels Arden Oplev also struggle to adequately set up any sort of character motivation at the outset, forcing viewers to suspend their disbelief to almost absurd levels. As a whole, the story is flimsy at best and doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny. It never flows naturally and doesn’t build-up to anything in particular. Here, the arcs are thinly defined as Opley uses Flatliners more as an excuse to showcase stylish afterlife sequences than craft a compelling narrative.
With a weak plot to begin with, there’s hardly anything the actors can do to elevate their roles. Each member of the group is given one trait to define them at most (Ray is the practical skeptic, Sophia is overwhelmed academically) for the extent of their characterizations. Nobody is looking at a Flatliners followup for deep character studies, but all of the main characters are so two-dimensional, it makes it difficult to care about what is happening. While the script tries to sell Courtney and her team as friends who have gone through the wringer of medical school together, they hardly display that sort of camaraderie, and any attempts at fleshing out their relationships come across as rushed and haphazard. They’re more plot devices than real individuals dealing with an extraordinary situation.
This isn’t really the fault of the cast, who are all decent in their parts and do what they can with the material. Page easily has the meatiest role of the bunch and gets a couple emotional scenes to display her range, but the Oscar-nominee has definitely done better work in her career. The supporting cast around her comes across as an interchangeable collection of fellow aspiring doctors, though Luna channels his screen presence and natural charisma to make Ray stand out a little bit from the crowd. Kiefer Sutherland, star of the original Flatliners, returns as his character Nelson Wright, but the role amounts to nothing more than a glorified cameo. His impact on the story is negligible, and some fans will wonder why he even bothered coming back. With a more focused script, this new film could have been something interesting that explores philosophical questions about humanity, but instead it’s dull.
From a directorial perspective, Opley’s handling behind-the-camera is competent, yet standard. As indicated, he does a good job of diversifying the afterlife vision sequences so each one feels unique and true to their respective character. Admittedly, things do get a tad repetitive as everyone gets their turn, but it’s nice to see some differences between them all. The second half is where Flatliners morphs into a pseudo-horror film and tries to assume the qualities of a slasher flick, but it comes up short here too. None of the imagery is haunting or disturbing enough to linger in the minds of audiences and are more cheap thrills than legitimate terrors. Many of the sequences in the third act are fueled by run-of-the-mill jump scares, and the PG-13 rating sanitizes these elements so they’re barely scary.
In the end, Flatliners is an ill-conceived belated sequel, despite the best efforts of those involved. It’s probably more or less what audiences expected when it was first announced, playing as an uninspired rehash that copies many of the plot points of the original while working up to a clunky and ham-fisted conclusion. With IT still playing for the horror crowd, it’s difficult to recommend Flatliners to anyone who isn’t a passionate, die-hard fan of the first film, as this new take has little to offer outside of nostalgia appeal. Even those intrigued by marketing would be better off waiting for home video, or simply rewatching the 1990 version.
Flatliners is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 110 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence and terror, sexual content, language, thematic material, and some drug references.
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