If there was a prize for the least anticipated remake ever, Flatliners would probably be pretty high on the list. On its release, Joel Schumacher’s 1990 original was roundly drubbed by most critics as ‘pretty but vacuous’ and this new version seems to have reached the big screen with very little trumpeting from its makers. On the face of it, not much has changed from the original story.
A bunch of medical students based in an American hospital, all of whom are haunted by incidents in their past, decide to run a series of experiments where they deliberately stop each other’s hearts in order to try and discover the answer to an age old question: is there life after death? Ring leader Courtney (Ellen Page) is tormented by the fact that, nine years ago, she inadvertently caused the death of her younger sister in a car accident. Rich-kid Jamie (James Norton) ran out on his pregnant girlfriend. Sophia (Kiersy Clemons) was the ringleader of a bullying campaign on a vulnerable girl at her high school, and Marlo (Nina Dobrev) accidentally caused the death of a patient at the hospital and then falsified the records. Only Ray (Diego Luna) appears to have no skeletons rattling in his closet but, luckily, he’s the one who always knows what to do in any given emergency – and, inevitably, things go wrong fairly often.
From the word go, viewers are asked to swallow a rather unlikely premise – that there’s a fully equipped and functioning operating theatre down in the hospital’s basement, one that isn’t guarded and is only ever to be used ‘in an emergency.’ (Yes, I know.) However, if you can accept that, what follows is entertaining enough in a kind of breathless, galumphing sort of way. Each character undergoes a freaky near-death experience – and afterwards, is haunted by ghostly visions and inexplicable events. The jump scares are expertly handled by director Niels Arden Oplev and the first two thirds of the film whizz by quite entertainingly. It’s only as it thunders into the final furlong that things begin to run out of steam and I find myself with the conviction that the writers haven’t really thought the story through properly. To be haunted by a dead person is one thing. To be haunted by somebody who is still demonstrably alive and existing happily in the world, is quite another. And to me, that’s a problem. Because, if the ‘spirits’ are only a manifestation of an already guilty conscience, why do the young doctors need to flatline in order to awaken them?
The acting from the ensemble cast is consistent throughout and it’s interesting to see Happy Valley’s James Norton making what looks like a pretty assured transition to Hollywood. Just for the sake of tradition, Kiefer Sutherland (who had a lead role in the original) throws in a cameo performance as a rather grumpy teacher, prone to snarling at his pupils and banging his walking stick on their desks whenever they fail to answer his questions correctly. The film’s somewhat cheesy conclusion – that people need to be ready to ‘forgive themselves’ – kind of blows what’s left of the credibility.
Ultimately, I think, this is one to watch when there isn’t much else on offer – and, come to think of it, that’s exactly why we’re seeing it. It’s decent enough entertainment but, in the end, forgettable and a bit… dare I say it? Flat.