Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Review of FLATLINERS (1990 vs. 2017): Afterlife, Arrogance and Amends

October 4, 2017


Five popular young actors of the 1990s starred in the original "Flatliners" film. Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland) was the bold one who had the bright idea of stopping his heart to see the afterlife. He invited his best classmates to revive him from asystole: the reckless class topnotcherDave Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), the libidinous Joe Hurley (William Baldwin), the aloof Rachel Manus (Julia Roberts), and the cautious Randy Steckle (Oliver Platt).

After the euphoria of Wright's revival from one-minute long death and his story of what he saw beyond, all the other students (except the sensible Steckle) outbid each other on how long they wanted to stay dead before they were revived. Little did they expect that waking up from death would bring with it ghosts from sins of their past back to haunt them.

I got the impression that director Joel Schumacher was trying to deliver a message against the arrogance of medical science in interfering with the destiny of a person's life and death. I found it a very fascinating topic because I too was a medical student when I first watched this film. I had seen people arrest and be resuscitated, and was curious what their experience was during those critical minutes when their heart stopped beating.

I wondered why were they still having anatomy dissection class when they were already rotating in the clinics and were supposedly already quite adept with advanced cardiac life support. Stunts like this never crossed my mind when I was a naive first year med student in Anatomy class. I had my doubts about the science of the film back then, especially about the accuracy of the resuscitation scenes that were shown. I saw the logic of using a cooling blanket to extend the window of resuscitation, but I had not seen it used in the local setting.

The post-resuscitation hauntings appeared to be very random, no specific patterns. Two of them dealt with "ghosts" of people who were still alive. Dealing with these guilty thoughts were relatively going to be easier. Two of them were haunted that deaths of people in their past. Dealing with these types of ghosts were obviously going to be more challenging. I felt this horror part of the film felt messy and somewhat cheesy with sentiment. What these past sins have to do with their near-death experience was never elaborated. 6/10.


I am not sure what sparked the idea of reviving "Flatliners" at all. The 1990 film (starring Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon and Julia Roberts) was not exactly a well-received film when it first came out, earning only middling reviews. The plot remains basically the same -- five medical students willingly undergo "flatlining" (heart arrest) in order to see what was on the other side at the point of death. This new version by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev has some significant differences from the original.

Courtney (Ellen Page) conceptualized this radical experiment to show the status of brain activities at the time of death that causes the visions reported by people who came back from death. Oddly, she picked Sophie (Kiersey Clemons) and Jamie (James Norton) to assist her, two who were not exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. Unlike in the first film when documentation was only done by a video camera, here Courtney monitors the brain via a imaging scan.

In her panic for their being unable to revive Courtney, Sophie paged their topnotch classmate Ray (Diego Luna) for assistance and he delivered. Another classmate Marlo (Nina Dobrev) followed Ray into the fully-functional underground hospital wing built for nuclear emergencies and also witnessed Courtney's successful resuscitation. Afterwards, Courtney was noted to display boundless energy and a prodigious memory, so everyone else wanted their own turn, except Ray. 

As before, the participants also experience horrific visions -- Courtney from her younger sister who died in a car accident, Jamie from an ex-girlfriend he had abandoned, Sophie from a girl she bullied. What I liked about this new version was that Marlo's ghost was actually medical in nature. As doctors we deal with life and death, and we have to admit that we do not always make the correct decisions. The ghost of such a patient who suffers a morbidity, or worse a mortality, is a doctor's most dreaded nightmare.

Another big difference is that one ghosts of these five doctors actually succeed in extracting its revenge on the person who wronged it. Like the first film, the script never really made clear what was causing these hauntings. One of them mentioned the word "demonic" which sounded absurd when considered in the meditative context of the first film, but that was how the doctors' malevolent visions in this new film looked like.

The actors all looked more like senior residents already than interns. At least Page, Luna and Dobrev seemed credible in the execution of the resuscitation scenes. Norton and Clemons never did come across as doctors at all. It was a great idea to have Kiefer Sutherland from the first film come back. He played their training officer Dr. Barry Wolfson in this version. It's a shame they did not have him portray his old character Nelson Wright. That would have been more interesting mentorship. 

There were some confusing details if you listen closely to their medical conversations. Sophie was already an intern, yet she still cannot memorize the 12 cranial nerves -- something any first year med students knew by heart. Well, at least they did not have anatomy dissections anymore, and knew how to use imaging to monitor brain activity and do endotracheal intubation while resuscitating in this reboot. They attempted to discuss sparks in the amygdala at one point after the first flatline attempt succeeded, but too bad that they never mentioned the experimental aspects anymore after that.

The filmmakers really poured on the computer-generated special effects to say that "improved" on the original. However, making this film feel like a "Final Destination" film was not the way to go. I wish they would have gone deeper into the science (fiction) aspect they built up in the first half, but director Oplev instead decided to mine the horror aspect for all its worth in the whole second half. Shallow thrills prevailed over scientific insight and that was truly unfortunate. 4/10. 

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