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Sunday, 17 December 2017

Retro Review: Flatliners (1990)

Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt
Genre: Science Fiction Psychological Horror 
U.S Box Office Gross: over $61 million 
Plot: Five medical students experiment with ''near death'' experiences until the dark consequences of past tragedies begin to jeopardise their lives

'Not So Much Flatlined, Just Flat'

Joel Schumacher's 1990 effort, Flatliners seeks to ask the question: what happens after we die? as well as explore its consequences. Despite the then-80/90s brat pack cast, Flatliners as a film, besides the flashback moments involving the students, doesn't go beyond the confines of the concept and plays things far too safe, thus, making the movie pedestrian and cookie-cutter like, when it ought to have been edgier, intriguing and menacing as a psychological thriller-horror type movie. 

Set in Chicago, 5 medical students, led by Nelson, carry out a reckless experiment and have their internal organs, heart, lungs, brain, shut down for 2 or 3 minutes until they are revived. As the days go by, all of Nelson's friends take it in turns to volunteer being a human guinea pig and through their experiences, they hallucinate and envision images of things that they saw, whilst they were dead.

I remembered a long time ago when I first saw this on TV as a teenager that I never took to this film and never liked it. & unfortunately, rewatching it today, those feelings and memories still surface as before, although those feelings have slightly changed since. It revels in a state of arrogance that wallows underneath the teen-like aesthetic and self-pithiness and obnoxiousness of the characters it seeks to portray. Yet it also reminds me how utterly miscast Julia Roberts was in this movie. As much as I enjoy her other performances but for her rom-coms and that she oozes charisma, it was odd to see her in a movie such as this. As the lone girl Rachel, it was a far cry from Pretty Woman's Vivian, which came out in the same year, but it was also quite a change of direction for an actress who up until this point starred in fluffy, safe fare such as Steel Magnolias, Mystic Pizza and Pretty Woman. Interestingly, her appearance/starring role in Flatliners actually came before she blew up big time on Pretty Woman that same year but it's more of a support role, rather than one where her character, the only girl amongst the boys, her part doesn't give Julia much to do than to play the straight role in a dramatic psychological thriller. 

Although Kevin Bacon as David was not bad, and he was by far my favourite: his performance easily outshines the others and compared to Julia Roberts, he was well cast. Although I did like the scenes with Bacon and Roberts's David and Rachel making banter with each other in one scene. Kiefer Sutherland, on the other hand, would have been more effective had his character had an air of personality. His scene with the bratty boy, Billy Mahoney where he gets the living daylights beaten out of him, Chucky the doll style, came out of the blue. The acting, on the whole, is fine, but I am questionable of some of the casting choices, but for Kevin Bacon who for me should have been the main lead, rather than Sutherland.

The sex scene with Billy Baldwin was unnecessary and tacked on and I guess it's not just myself who thought it was strange to see a medical school operating out of a cathedral/museum. 

Joel Schumacher is not a great director; his works have not impressed me but for Falling Down, and with production by Michael Douglas and here, Schumacher's style is very much centred on the youthful looks of Kiefer Sutherland, Billy Baldwin, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon. He's more into the flashy side of things, but when it comes to substance and depth, he just doesn't go to greater lengths to extract that out of a movie. The Black and White flashback scenes are not so effective, the scenes with Billy Baldwin flat-lining are boring, as a psychological thriller, it's not thrilling or scary enough and but for Kevin Bacon, it seems as though the rest of the main cast are just scraps. 

Since this film came out in 1990, out of the main five out of Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Billy Baldwin, Julia Roberts and Oliver Platt, it was indeed Roberts who went on to have a more sustainable Hollywood career as a rom-com actress, longevity-wise. Which is interesting to see, given I still believe and feel that Flatliners was not the ideal film for her. 

Revisiting Flatliners, it's not so bad and terrible, but still, the casting choices and seeing Julia Roberts here is still strange, - although I have to admit that her performance wasn't so bad. 

A psychological drama with a tinge of the horror-thriller, the young cast make the best out of a sub-par & somewhat lightweight script that chooses to stay within its confines, rather than go out of it and go out of the box and be more daring and risky.

There was a remake or be it follow-up sequel to this film titled Flatliners that was released in 2017; I've not seen it, but from what I have read the general consensus is it is a needless movie.


Pros +

- Kevin Bacon's performance

- Julia Roberts was okay

- Watchable in places

Cons -

- As much as I like Julia Roberts as an actress and when she doesn't do rom-coms, I just couldn't envision her in her role in this film

- Everyone else but Kevin Bacon seems to be miscast

- Raises some philosophical, meaning of life issues, questions but never really addresses them

- Too ambiguous 

- Not shocking or outrageous enough 

Final Verdict:

Overall, Flatliners is solid, but the limitations of the story and the fact that it didn't go far enough in terms of thrills and shocks are what weighs it down. Under Joel Schumacher, there is just no real sense of consequence or urgency and as much as it tries to echo its horror themes and tone, Flatliners lacked grit and the true element of fear, which would have propelled it further. 

Schumacher underplayed this one, thus in doing so the film undermines any sense of realism and threat it chooses to pose and along with a less than impressive casting, but for Kevin Bacon, though it was watchable in places, with a much better cast and better characterisations, Flatliners would have made for a better movie. 

It's not a must-see and I don't dislike it as much as I did back in the early 1990s, although it still is vague and feels banal and too pedestrian.

That, and as a film, Flatliners under Joel Schumacher is far too safe. & flat.


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