I’m “biast” (con): tired of all the reboots
I have seen the source material (and I don’t much like it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
The reboot no one asked for of a movie no one much remembers has landed… and it’s dead on arrival. Oh, this new and pointless Flatliners deserves all the terrible death-related puns we can toss at it: “Someone should have put a do-not-rescusitate on the 1990 movie.” “A fate worse than death.” “Brain dead.” “Send it to the morgue.” C’mon, it’s fun!
I rewatched the original Flatliners to remind myself how very unsuccessful it was at creating scares or making us care about its medical students who “kill” themselves and get revived after a few minutes for the lulz of a near-death experience. Incredibly, this “update” has found absolutely nothing new to say and no way to expand the concept, and might actually be less effective in the engaging-our-empathy department. Screenwriter Ben Ripley (Source Code), sharing a story credit with 1990 writer Peter Filardi, tosses an MRI machine into the scenario this time: the students record their brain activity while “dead.” But this is a meaningless tangent, merely a way to add some 2010s-looking shiny tech to the set design. And it trips some plausibility alarms, too: If there really were a separate, second, fully equipped but completely deserted hospital in the subbasement of the other fully equipped and completely operational hospital above where these med students are med-studenting, would they really get such easy access to it to play there? Would no one notice what they doing?
The Scooby gang here is an improvement over the 1990 film, in that it consists of three women and two men. (The earlier one was a bunch of guys and The Girl.) But they’re a mixed bag of believability. Nina Dobrev’s (Chloe) Marlo and Kiersey Clemons’s (Dope) Sophia are at least age appropriate as med students. Thirty-year-old Ellen Page (My Life as a Zucchini, Freeheld) — as Courtney, the instigator of the project — can pass for younger; 32-year-old James Norton (Bonobo, Mr. Turner), as ladies’ man Jamie, looks older than he is. And the movie attempts to shrug off 37-year-old Diego Luna (Rogue One, The Bad Batch) as a mature student because he “spent nine years as a firefighter in Houston,” a line of dialogue that is weighted with significance and turns out to mean absolutely nothing. Sure, there are older students in every field, but the risks these people are taking are only credible — and then only passingly — when it is the folly of arrogant, immortal-feeling youth at work. (The cast of the original film were all younger, and, more importantly, looked it.)
For a little while, the NDE returnees get supercharged brain activity, like Bradley Cooper in that Limitless movie. As with the MRI, this is another ostensibly “new” twist on the concept that goes nowhere. Courtney bakes bread from her grandma’s long-forgotten recipe and suddenly can play the piano beautifully. Sophia does a Rubik’s cube ultraquick. (A Rubik’s cube? Way to retro, I guess.) Soon, though, they are all being haunted by guilt over bad things they’ve done, taunted by memories of people they’ve hurt in the past… but who needs an NDE for that to happen? (Hell, I’ve lain awake at night wondering why on earth I said that to someone 20 years ago.) The nightmarish dreamscapes of the memory-hauntings in the 1990 movie — which, as previously noted, were still not terribly scary — have been replaced by the stock spooks of “eerily” darkened corridors, radios emitting strange voices, and shadowy figures passing by while characters’ attention is elsewhere. Somehow, director Niels Arden Oplev (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has highlighted something that the original film managed to distract us from: here we have the least interesting extrapolation of the NDE phenomenon possible. People start to feel bad about the not-nice things they’ve done? Oooo, spine-chilling!
As with its predecessor, this Flatliners cannot commit to a groundwork for its story. Is something supernatural going on? Is it merely that the gray matter of all the NDE returnees has gone a little soft? The movie doesn’t even know what genre it is, and that’s not a matter of intriguing ambiguity (would that that were the case). It’s a matter of being too spineless to know itself, to know what it wants to be about. Flatliners cannot even commit to being trashy: it gets Kiefer Sutherland (Zoolander 2, Pompeii) back from the 1990 film as one of the students’ teachers, a veteran doctor, but he’s not the same character who flatlined himself all those years ago. Now, there would be some grade-A cheese: the students stumble across some of his notes that should have been destroyed, delve into NDEs… and find Kiefer on the other side. Or discover his experiments on himself have driven him mad. Or maybe he does know what they’re up to in the subbasement and has his own nefarious reasons for letting them keep at it. There are possibilities here. They are all ignored.
“We’re way beyond explanations,” Marlo says when the students are trying to figure out why they’re having weird experiences. Er, no, we’re not. For starters, I want an explanation of why this movie got made when there are so many new stories waiting to be told.