‘Flatliners’ Is Great Schlock Trapped Inside Bad Horror

Considering Sony’s Flatliners remake didn’t screen for critics and was already batting 0% on RottenTomatoes after 18 reviews by the time I saw it Friday morning, it isn’t that bad. That being said, it also isn’t good. Once it posits the existence of the supernatural, it spends the rest of the movie slowly strangling the ghost in its own machine. It’s a film that begins with a med student’s promising findings about the existence of the afterlife and ends with her friends literally pitching those findings into the ocean. I don’t know if that’s anti-religion or anti-science, but it’s definitely anti-enjoyable storytelling.

The film is set among a cabal of sexy med students like the original (their advisor is played by Kiefer Sutherland for #brandsynergy). Ellen Page plays Courtney, a resident who has witnessed some intriguing phenomena in the brain scans of dying patients (which show up on the scans as lightning bolts, which I’m pretty sure involves some dramatic license). So intrigued is she that she becomes her own guinea pig, tricking some of her fellow students into stopping her heart and then reviving her to measure what’s happening in her brain as she expires (the afterlife, I guess?). To get them down to her conveniently located MRI machine in the med school basement, she tricks horndog Jamie (James Norton) into thinking she wants to have sex with him there and lures fragile Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) with the promise of studying help. When Jamie bungles the revive, he makes a frantic call to Ray (Diego Luna), the class prodigy, who runs out of the hospital with Marlo (Nina Dobrev) in tow, thus assembling the full Captain Planet of conspirators. (Like a “murder” of crows, Captain Planets was just how we counted conspirators in the 90s).

After her revival, Courtney is suddenly full of new skills. She solves medical mysteries by remembering obscure drug interaction warnings, bakes delicious bread based on her grandma’s recipe, and even shreds on the piano, despite the fact that she hasn’t played since she was 11. Oh, and did I mention she’s suddenly super horny? Seeing how great Courtney is doing, suddenly all the cool kids want to kill themselves. “Flatline” quickly gets verbed. (“Pssst. Hey, kid. Wanna flatline?”) As Sophia says, “if we could bottle flatlining, we could sell it as a club drug.”

At this point in the movie, honestly, so far so good. Sure, Fight Club also pulled the “almost dying makes everything better” trick, but the idea that killing yourself is cool and sexy is a perfect schlock plot, and honestly, a dead-on observation about the last 70 years pop culture.

Of course, once everyone has supped from the cup of Lazarus, something bad has to happen, and that’s where the movie breaks down. Would you believe that when they come back from the dead, something bad comes back with them? It’s a shocking development unless you’ve seen literally any horror movie ever made.

What didn’t start out a conventional horror movie quickly becomes one, complete with zombies, crying ghost babies, jump scares, and a scared person falling from a high place. (First rule of a haunting, never run out onto the damned balcony.) Of course, horror movies aren’t about whether there are ghosts, because of course there are ghosts. They’re about what the characters have to do to overcome the ghosts. In Flatliners, it turns out they’ve all done something bad that they have to atone for. So they all do that and then the movie’s over. Only in actual screen time, this takes like 40 minutes.

The worst part is, a movie that starts out asking intriguing questions about the afterlife and turns near-death experiences into a club drug for horny 20-somethings turns into a cautionary tale about saying you’re sorry. Zzzzz. Here, try this new drug, it’s called total downer. It skirts any questions it has raised about death and the afterlife and whether what happens in your brain after your heart shuts down is a hallucination. I mean, I guess it is? Because what they found was just their own guilty conscience. Then when they pitch Courtney’s laptop with all her research on it off a bridge, Flatliners becomes possibly the first movie in history to stage a burial at sea for its own now-dead possibility of being any good.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: But Vince, isn’t that how the original one ended? According to Wikipedia, it isn’t, but that’s not the point. This happens every time we discuss a remake or a reboot of something from 20+ years ago. The onus of proof that a remake isn’t just craven intellectual property maintenance is on the remaker, not the viewer. The idea that because a remake was just reshooting a scene from 1990 (or whenever) absolves it of criticism for being irrelevant or silly in 2017 gets it exactly backward. That’s the whole point. Faithfulness to the original doesn’t matter. Whether you shoot it exactly the same or change it to fit the times, you have to prove that it’s relevant in 2017. Or else what the hell are we all doing here?

In the case of Flatliners, the concept turns out to be surprisingly somewhat relevant. The execution, unfortunately, is not.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.