Resurrection is a bad idea, generally. The urge to fend off death, to dig up a treasured memory, is terribly human but rarely humane. So why is it that this keeps on happening? Why won’t Hollywood let go of the past and let sleeping films lie?
Enforcing the lazarus effect upon Joel Schumacher’s weirdly gothic, but strangely enjoyable 1990 cult-favourite Flatliners for the twenty-first-century is Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, with a fresh-ish script from Source Code’s Ben Ripley. Now there’s a man who knows about repetition. Original producer Michael Douglas has returned for the not-quite-sequel/reboot and brought with him the first film’s star Kiefer Sutherland, in an fittingly odd supporting role that seems determined to remain ambiguous as to whether he’s playing the same character.
The conceit in Flatliners mark II is essentially the same as last time; five med-students arrogantly toy with death in a dangerous experiment to try and experience the afterlife. Clinically killing themselves in the ‘fully functioning underground hospital’ at the Trinity Emmanuel Medical Centre, the group takes turns, under the persuasion of Ellen Page’s troubled Courtney Holmes, to flatline, before being resuscitated by the others to tell the tale. However, as Frankenstein discovered back in 1818 (and Frankenweenie in 2012 as it goes), it is never wise to ‘play God’ when it comes to breaching the veil. Running with the idea that one’s life is said to rush before the eyes in the moment of death, the film digs up the less savoury histories of its protagonists’ pasts, forcing them to confront haunting reminders of actions and incidents that they’d long suppressed on reawakening.
Among the changes made in Oplev’s update is a reasonably admirable shake up of the original casting demographics; in 1990, Julia Roberts was the sole representation of women allowed to practice medicine, whereas here the ratio is three to two in favour the gender. Unfortunately, that’s essentially where the positive altercations, well…flatline. A shame after a promising opening third handles the cod-philosophy and pseudoscience of mark I with impressive tact and delivers yet another strong turn by Ellen Page. Maintaining some of the first film’s atmosphere, Oplev wisely dials down the faux operatic silliness in favour of allowing the characters a little more chance to breathe. The tension works rather well too in these opening reels but is somewhat shattered by a series of dozy set pieces and a risibly poor drunken montage – the first of two.
The main issue with Flatliners, other than its inevitable inability to bring anything new to the operating table, is that it is plagued with inconsistencies – in plot and tone alike – and bizarre missteps. Take the inaugural ‘flatlining’ experience, for example; so preposterously extensive is Courtney’s subjection to the experiment that plausibility and tension are immediately ejected. When Marlo (Nina Dobrev) later declares her suicidal intention to try flatline for three minutes (‘What can I say, I’m competitive’) the fact that we’ve already seen Courtney survive nigh on seven surely nulls the jeopardy for all bar amnesiacs. This lack of logically defined rules pervades the characters’ experiences and responses of and to flatline throughout, making a swarm of random developments down the line feel increasingly hard to swallow and resulting in a disappointingly hokum climax of a finale. Worst of these peculiar oddities is surely the perplexing suggestion that trainee doctors facing 36 hour shifts and browbeating examinations could possibly have the time to devote themselves to such extensive extracurricular experimentation. James Norton – whose Jamie lives on a boat for some reason – even manages to squeeze a highly rigorous gym workout scheme into his life, the only explanation for his outstanding pectorals.
It would spoil too much as to why the final third really sags in momentum but horror ingredients transferred directly from Collins’ ‘Big Book of How to Make a Scary Film’ can only get a feature so far.