Cinema Dispatch: Flatliners

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Flatliners and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

There are several movies a year that for whatever reason has trailers that will not stop playing in front of EVERYTHING I go to see.  I remember Our Brand is Crisis being one of them, The Fate of the Furious played pretty constantly, even Snatched was one that was hard to avoid!  This movie is certainly the latest to have that problem as I swear it was in front of every movie I’ve seen for the past three months and I’m finally happy for it to be released for no other reason than to stop seeing that trailer.  I’d never seen the original film until very recently, and while the premise itself seems strong enough to support at least too movies, the trailers didn’t fill me with much hope; not just because they played them ALL THE TIME, but because I couldn’t really wrap my head around what exactly it was that they were being haunted by.  I mean… I get it NOW since I watched the original, but with lines like “I did not know that the side effects would show up and start hunting us down”… yeah, it just felt like I was in for an uphill battle.  Still, remakes are a great opportunity to try something new (*cough* IT *cough*), so maybe there’s a chance that this will turn out just fine!  Will this manage to be just as good if not better than the original, or was this film… dead on arrival!?

Sorry.  Let’s uh… let’s find out.

The titular Flatliners of the film are a group of medical students who doing some messed up experiments in the basement in the hope of finding out the secrets of the afterlife.  The procedure which was concocted by Dr Courtney Holmes (Ellen Page) involves stopping someone’s heart (i.e. a flatline on an EKG machine) and letting them stay dead for a few minutes before reviving them.  Initially with the uncertain help of Sophia and Jamie (Kiersey Clemons and James Norton) the group eventually grows to include Marlo and Ray (Nina Dobrev and Diego Luna) and most of them end up doing it themselves as well.  At first it seems awesome as coming back from the dead apparently makes your brain SUPER strong, but eventually the SIDE EFFECTS start to kick in which complicates things for them.  They start to see things that aren’t really there (OR ARE THEY!?) and it eventually becomes nearly impossible to separate fantasy from reality.  Will the Flatliners find a way to stop whatever it is that’s haunting them?  Is there something in their past that is the key to doing so?  Seriously, why are they making it THIS easy for everyone to do the “dead on arrival” joke!?

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Here’s the thing.  Flatliners, while a pretty damn good movie, was not an EXCELLENT one and as far as I can tell it’s not one that’s held sacred in the minds of film fans like Ben-Hur, Robocop, or even Friday the 13th.  There’s plenty to like about the Joel Schumacher original film (and I’ll be sure to tell you exactly what in this review) but it’s also a pretty solid film to try and remake; not so bad or obscure that people won’t care that you’re doing another one, but also not so beloved that doing one will immediately turn people away just for the attempt no matter how good it ends up being (*cough* Ghostbusters *cough*).  There are parts of this movie that live up to the original and I’ll even give it credit for not being a note for note remake by deviating rather heavily from the source material.  Ultimately though, this is a lackluster movie that feels slapdash and poorly thought out even before you start comparing it to the original which is absolutely fair to do and crushes pretty much any goodwill I may have had for this.

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The only one flatlining here is ME!  HA HA!!

On the most basic of merits, this movie is just fine and does an okay job of recreating the original film.  Both are pseudo-cautionary tales about the DANGERS OF PLAYING IN GOD’S DOMAIN with an interesting premise to work off of and characters who actually INFORM the drama instead of just getting swept up in it.  I like the aesthetic of the new film more than the original which was certainly garish enough to be a Joel Schumacher film, but the fact that pretty much every scene looks like it took place in a church felt a bit much to me.  I don’t know if anatomy exams are often taken in SUPER echoey Cathedral chambers with Franciscan paintings, Roman busts, and religious statues all over the god damn place, but to me it came off as a little bit silly.  The more modernized aesthetic isn’t much better than a television medical drama, but I’ve watched enough House to have a certain amount of affection for it.  I think the cast is just fine for the characters their asked to play with Kiersey Clemons and Diego Luna being particular standouts.  It was also a wise move for them to not play the same characters from the original film (allowing them to significantly different motivations and arcs) which gives it at least SOMETHING to distinguish itself from the original.  There’s even a fun cameo in here that doesn’t quite pan out the way you REALLY want it to, but it’s still nice seeing that particular actor in a mainstream movie like this!

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Hey, at least this is better than that stupid xXx movie she was in!

What this new version of the story lacks that the other film excelled at is its pacing, structure, discipline, and the overall scripting.  In short, THAT film knew what it wanted to be and was carefully crafted to tell that story.  This one feels like a focus tested nightmare as it’s a hodgepodge of everything that some studio hack thinks will appeal to THE KIDS THESE DAYS even if it doesn’t make any sense or contribute to the story in any meaningful way.  The movie is just so full of distractions lacks and lacks even the slightest semblance of subtly which saps it of any weight or meaning.  The basic threat of both movies are the same which is the manifestation of each character’s guilt coming back to bite them in the ass, and while the original film was over the top, it also knew to keep things thematically relevant.  Okay, Kiefer Sutherland getting the ever loving SHIT kicked out of him by a ten year old boy isn’t the most RESTRAINED thing in the world, BUT it makes sense considering what we find out about him and the event in his past that this kid is manifesting from!  We don’t get that AT ALL in this movie where everyone’s sin has almost no bearing on what they’ll see.  Did one character cyber bully someone?  Well stick them on an elevator of doom!  Did someone lie on a medical report?  Well let’s have someone try to suffocate her with a plastic bag while driving!  Is any of that supposed to make sense!?  I don’t get how something SO fundamental to the movie was so misunderstood by the filmmakers!  This is just one example of the film fumbling with its themes and characters as it makes really obvious mistakes throughout that were simply not there in the original one.  The mystery behind Kiefer Sutherland’s ghost beatings is slowly revealed to us throughout the story which keeps the audience engaged with finding out what is going on and provides the maximum impact once we find out what he REALLY did after we’ve already gotten to know him and (to some extent) like him.  What is the absolutely WORST way to handle that kind of story in the remake?  I don’t know, HOW ABOUT HAVING THE FIRST SCENE IN THE MOVIE TELL US EXACTLY WHY OUR MAIN CHARACTER IS MOTIVATED TO DO THIS EXPERIMENT AND THEREFORE LET US KNOW EXACTLY WHAT IS HAUNTING THEM AFTER IT HAPPENS!?  If these filmmakers were remaking The Usual Suspects, I guarantee you that whoever they got to play YOU KNOW WHO would be wearing a badge saying HELLO, MY NAME IS KAISER SÖZE!

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JEEZ, movie!  Spoiler alert!

Throughout the movie it just drops things on you with no fanfare.  Instead of letting their dark secrets reveal themselves over the course of the movie, they get completely revealed (or VERY strongly implied) during their flatlines which are honestly rather boring to watch.  They weren’t spectacular in the original either so I’ll give them credit for TRYING to expand on what they see when they flatline, but in doing so it calls TOO much attention to them and leaves things just a bit too spelled out.  One of the things I liked the most about the original film is just how up for debate everything about it was.  You could see this as a straight up ghost movie, a religious parable, or even just a bunch of people whose darkest secrets are coming to the forefront due to a traumatic experience and them having to deal with those feelings.  Here, things are made just a bit too clear, and while it doesn’t really have the overbearing religious symbolism of the first film, it DOES lean too far into the idea that THIS IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING rather than letting the audience decide how much of it is just in their own head.  The amount of detail and the length of time of these HORROR SET PIECES where the main characters are rather esoterically forced to confront their demons (okay, she made fun of someone in school, but why is she suddenly in the middle of a burnt up classroom?) makes it harder to separate those moments from the diegesis of the film and unlike the original there’s never really a moment that contradicts what the character is seeing.  Again, they’re just doing way too much without thinking it through and it makes a story that COULD have been interesting into a depressingly average waste of time.

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And this has anything to do with what’s going on… how?

If you want a textbook example of an uninspired and studio mandated remake, you’d hardly find one as emblematic of that mindset as this one.  I’m REALLY not the person to start wagging my walking stick about how much better things were in the old days, but I just saw the original film for the first time only a few weeks ago, and… yeah.  Studio films back then, at least the ones that are SOMEWHAT worth remembering, had a lot more originality and trust in its audience than the kind of crap we get now.  That one not only took the time to slow down and let the characters breathe; it also knew when to hold back information or let a scene play out quietly so as to let the story unfold more gracefully.  Here, it’s just EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME BECAUSE THE KIDS THESE DAYS HAVE NO ATTENTION SPAN which leads to a much less engaging, much less cohesive, and simply a much less enjoyable film.  A good director with the same cast and SOME of the same script could have made a movie on par with the Schumacher original which honestly wouldn’t have been THAT hard for a person with the right skills, but it looks like we can’t even get THAT much right nowadays.  I’m sure this is better than a lot of movies that were made around the time of the original (that was the same year as Look Who’s Talking Too), but this is certainly not worth watching in a theater when you can watch the far superior version at home.  It may not be worse than a lot of movies that I didn’t like this year, but simply for the fact that this so far short of what it’s remaking, it’s one of the films I least recommend checking out; no matter HOW many bankable stars or popular songs were strategically placed in here to appeal to my generation.

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