Doctors lead very exciting lives in movies. Every doctor I’ve known in real life has been a little dull. Intelligent, but dull, because the amount of exacting detail and memorization needed to successfully practice doesn’t lend itself to excitement. But movie doctors are on the cutting edge of human experience. They’re scientists, just ask them.
Remember, Frankenstein was a medical doctor. And Flatliners is an-inverse Frankenstein movie. Instead of finding the dead and bringing it to life, these doctors bring themselves to the brink of death, and pull back just in time. Led by Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland), a group of medical students wants to see if there is anything beyond the veil of death. The science is dodgy, but the movie premise is sound.
The students are a motley crew of medical types. Wright’s closest confidant is David Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), recently suspended from school because of an unauthorized emergency surgery on a dying patient. David is closest to Wright in intellectual rigor and intelligence. Dr. Steckle (Oliver Platt) wants to be a doctor apparently so he can write about it, and he documents the experiments. Joe Hurley (William Baldwin) likes the fringe female benefits to medicine more than the classes; it’s not clear why he’s along. The one with the strongest personal motive for the dangerous, foolish experiments is Dr. Rachel Mannus (Julia Roberts.) She’s obsessed with near-death experiences and wants to have one of her own.
But it’s Nelson’s idea, so he gets to go first. The doctors use an abandoned building that looks like a cathedral. Using a series of medical devices meant to save lives, they try to nearly end their own. Nelson goes under for a minute and a half and sees visions. Green fields, kids running. They make little sense to him or us, and when he comes back, he can’t explain it satisfactorily. It was real to him, almost more real than life.
David doesn’t believe it. He’s an outspoken atheist, and he’s sure that there’s nothing but trace memories or mental tricks. He’s so sure, he insists on going under longer, just so he can come back to report on the nothing he sees there.
But he does see something. And so does Hurley.
And what they see doesn’t stay in their minds. The visions begin to crowd their everyday life, and seemingly manifest in the flesh. And they won’t go away.
Flatliners straddles the line between a supernatural-tinged dramatic thriller and an out and out horror movie. It has an interesting premise which fuels some creepy scenes and a foreboding atmosphere. What it doesn’t do is delve into the heart of its subject matter. Our protagonists have enigmatic visions in their near-death experiences. These visions then play themselves out in more coherent form in the real world, culminating into scenes of anxiety and fright.
For Hurley, the point of these visions is the most direct. We see him early in the film indulging in the nasty practice of secretly filming sexual liaisons with women. He has an entire collection of tapes, trophies of his conquests. His visions include these tapes, displayed on every video surface he sees. Eventually these women come to him again, plying him with his own pickup lines.
Clearly, it’s his bad behavior coming back onto him. Nelson, David, and eventually (despite the best efforts of the men to shield her from it) Rachel go under and have similar experiences. And so, the obvious thing to do, which David tries, is to make amends. But some wrongs can’t be amended. Both Rachel and Nelson have no easy path to atonement.
Flatliners seems so be setting up difficult spiritual questions, but it doesn’t directly confront them. The conversations between the doctors never get below the surface. It’s not a surprise, really, because that is where director Joel Schumacher’s talents lie. He’s a lovely image crafter, and Flatliners is a beautiful film. The new 4K release is luminous and detailed. There’s a lot of shadow and darkness in the film, and Schumacher likes to use filtered lights, even if there isn’t a readily available source to explain them. The doctors are at a Catholic university and Schumacher gets a lot of mileage out of religious iconography and imagery.
His commitment to visual interest sometimes comes at the expense of common sense. There’s no reason, even in a building being renovated, for there to be sheets of plastic hanging from the ceiling of an unused woman’s bathroom. But he needs them there to look interesting for a scene, so they’ll be there. In some dramatic scenes, the actor’s hair is constantly being pulled by the wind, even if they’re well inside a building. There’s a constant striving for effect, and it makes the images seem rather affected.
The film that I always contrast Flatliners with is Jacob’s Ladder, which came out a few months later (and did much worse at the box office.) Both have their characters confronted with visions that might be supernatural in origin. But Jacob’s Ladder had both a genuine sense of the mysterious and the spiritual in mind. Flatliners is too blatantly seeking for effects without much thought behind them. And it doesn’t fully commit to horror or psychological depth. It’s a good entertainment, with great visual flair and this sense of having a deeper meaning always just out of reach. But it never quite attains the power that it seems to want to have.
Flatliners has been released on 4K by Arrow Video. Extras on disc include a new audio commentary by critics Bryan Reesman and Max Evry. The all new video extras include “The Conquest of our Generation” (19 mins), an interview with screenwriter Peter Filardi; “Visions of Light” (18 min), an interview with DP Jan De Bont and Chief Lighting Technician Edward Ayer; “Hereafter” (14 min), an interview with First Assistant Director John Kretchmer; “Restoration” (10 min), an interview with production designer Eugenio Zanetti and art director Larry Lundy; “Atonement” (11 min), an interview with composer James Newton Howard and orchestrator Chris Boardman; and “Dressing for Character” (6 min), an interview with costume designer Susan Becker. There’s also a trailer an image gallery. The limited-edition disc includes a booklet with essays on the film.