In an era of unnecessary and unwanted remakes of classic and beloved films, Flatliners might be a prime candidate for successful retelling.
Joel Schumacher’s 1990 film has a great premise – young med students fascinated by near-death experiences put themselves under to bring themselves back from the dead – but I never understood why the film turns into a serious-minded drama about living with guilt during its second half. Instead of, you know, a horror movie about the haunting spectre of death a la Final Destination.
Today, the film is best remembered for its young cast (Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, and Kevin Bacon) and the director’s visual flourishes rather than any storytelling feats. And that makes it a good film for revisiting: shake up the plot, shift the focus, and you might have a better movie.
And for a while, I thought that’s what this latest version from Danish director Niels Arden Oplev (who made the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) was about to deliver.
During the first half of 2017’s Flatliners, the filmmakers boost both the horror and supernatural elements of their story, as young med student Courtney (Ellen Page) ropes her classmates (played by Kiersey Clemons, James Norton, Nina Dobrev, and Diego Luna) into bringing her back from death in a terrifying experiment.
But Courtney has a good time with her near-death experience, and even seems to come out of it with some kind of superhuman powers: she’s acid-trip happier, as in the original film, but also seems to be smarter than she was before crossing to the other side.
In a break from the original film, Courtney has explicit motive for her experiment: she’s trying to reconnect with her dead sister, who died in an auto accident. But once she comes out… she finds the reunion might not be to her benefit.
I liked Page’s performance here, and I liked the character’s backstory. And somewhere around the midpoint, there’s a departure from the original that I found so shocking I wasn’t sure if what I saw had really happened for minutes afterward. I have to give the film a lot of credit for the genuine surprise, if nothing else.
But after the twist, the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do in its second half, or with its other characters. And so it becomes a tepid, and entirely superficial, retracing of the guilt-trip storyline from the original film.
And while it might seem difficult for a movie to be less subtle than a Joel Schumacher counterpart, we get such scenes here as our main characters demanding forgiveness from their past victims in order to solve their current ghost problems.
While Page puts in some dedicated work here, the other cast members fail to build any interest in their own character’s sub-plots; Luna, in particular, feels out of place here next to his younger co-stars. Sutherland appears briefly as the students’ professor.
That the first half of this remake delivers some promise makes the eventual outcome even more disappointing. Flatliners is prime material for a good remake, but 2017’s version isn’t it.