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What happens after we die? Is there truly an afterlife with a white light at the end of a long, dark tunnel? These existential questions have plagued humanity for millennia, but perhaps science has finally caught up with our desire to know the truth of existence. A reimagining of the 1990 film directed by Joel Schumacher, Niels Arden Oplev's Flatliners attempts to answer all of our questions about life after death, but while the movie works on a technical and performance level, its cheap scares and contrived plot do little to move the dial forward for the horror genre.
Neither a direct sequel nor a full-blown remake, Flatliners takes the core idea established by the 1990 original and updates it with a new cast of characters for a new generation. Haunted by a (possibly preventable) car crash that took the life of her younger sister nine years earlier, Courtney (Ellen Page) is a talented medical student who spends her evenings secretly studying the mystery of the afterlife. Discovering a possible path to experience the afterlife for brief stretches of time, Courtney enlists the help of fellow students Ray (Diego Luna), Marlo (Nina Dobrev), Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), and Jamie (James Norton) to kill her for one minute and then bring her back. As a result of this bold experiment, the students not only find a path to the afterlife, but they fundamentally rewire their brains to unlock the cognitive potential that they never thought was possible. The downside? They bring something evil back from the other side with them that wants to punish them for their sins.
2017 has seen some great horror movies debut -- whether it is Annabelle: Creation, It, or Get Out. Sadly, we cannot place the Flatliners update among those ranks. Yes, Niels Arden Oplev capably helms the sequel-boot from a purely visual standpoint. That said, while there are a few legitimately creepy sequences (such as one involving a ghostly little girl drawing by candlelight), Flatliners boils down to a series of fake-out jump scares scattered throughout a relatively predictable narrative, and culminates in a rushed climax that simply doesn't pay off the preceding story in an emotionally satisfying way. There's quite a bit of style here, but minimal substance.
As a result, while Flatliners opens quickly and commendably gets to the point almost immediately, the film loses its momentum once the concept of "flatlining" has been fully explained and fleshed out. Because of this, the second act mostly boils down to a series of haunts shared between each of the four main characters that go through with the procedure. Like the steady flow of a pulse on a heartbeat monitor, Flatliners eventually becomes so predictable that you can almost anticipate which of these young doctors will be the next to find themselves visited by a demonic apparition before it even happens.
In a certain sense, it almost feels like Flatliners has one hand unfortunately tied behind its back by its need to stick within the horror genre. This reimagining expands on the premise of the original by positing that flatlining enhances the cognitive function of these stressed out and overworked medical students. It creates an interesting Limitless-esque framework to explore how these characters can become fixated to this dangerous game (drug and addiction motifs play a significant role in the story), but those compelling ideas are sidestepped to focus on the scares. It's a shame, because what could've been a deeper examination of the original's core premise mostly just devolves into a retread that struggles to justify its existence.
The more notable issue that plagues the film's ensemble is the fact that script does not afford the actors much to do in their respective roles. What we need to know about any of the five core doctors is usually summed up by a comment made about them ("Medicine comes easy to you," for example), and we're not given much of a reason to root for them or care about what's happening. Their rationale for taking part in the flatlining procedure is inherently selfish from the get-go, and the added layer of their sins coming back to haunt them ultimately makes it hard even to want to root for most of them to make it out of the film alive.
Despite that issue, if there are two shining lights in Flatliners, they would have to be Diego Luna and Ellen Page. Even when Flatliners' script does not give them much to do, they milk the material for all it is worth and deliver the two best performances in the movie. Page deserves particular credit, as she throws herself into Courtney's obsessed nature and really lets loose when the character realizes what she has unleashed. It just would've been nice to see a more compelling story constructed around the heroine.
Though competently directed and well-acted, Flatliners does little to set itself apart from a run-of-the-mill thriller. True to the material, it simply lacks a pulse. On a superficial level, the film will most likely deliver the requisite scares (albeit cheap jump scares) to enter the Halloween season, but it probably will fail to leave a lasting impression.