Flatliners dared us to cross the line. It's underwhelming box office figures suggest very few followed that advice though - and those that did ripped it to shreds. Of course, the 2017 film is a sequel to the 1990 original - which was hardly the most well-liked film - and hoped to spawn a new franchise for the struggling Sony Pictures, but it looks to be dead on arrival. Is the film really as bad as that 5% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating suggests, or has it been unfair attacked?
As with the original, the film follows five medical students attempting to learn about the afterlife. After conducting controlled near-death experiments - flatlining - they are brought back to life to report their findings. As it becomes obvious that something has followed them back into the real world, the students must learn to fight their new demons to survive. Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton and Kiersey Clemons lead the film as the medical students exploring the after-life, while Kiefer Sutherland returns as a new character because this is most definitely a sequel, not a remake (despite IMDB continuing to list it is a remake).
Calling Flatliners one of the worst films of the year, like many others have, would be the easiest option here. Honestly, Flatliners is not a good film - but neither is it the colossal failure most would have you believe. It feels odd trying to defend a film that one cannot knowingly recommend to a friend, but it simply does not deserve its now infamous reputation or fervorous, hateful reception. Critics appeared to jump on this one immediately, picking at its dying carcass in delight, and I'm not too sure why.
Maybe my expectations were lowered to rock-bottom levels approaching Flatliners: I rather disliked the original, the incoming reviews were disastrous to say the least and, frankly, it looked pretty poor. Does the film deserve my pity? Probably not. It's uninspired, conventional and a little bit dull at times. It's not even entertaining enough to justify its existence; but there are worse films to waste your time on.
Director Niels Arden Oplev reimagines the picture with a solid-enough vision: the nightmare sequences are particularly well-realised, with a genuine sense of horror incorporated into the mix. Although it seems unbalanced in terms of tone and genre - with a definitive, sudden difference between the two halves of the film - it embraces it in a way that is goofy, camp and trashy enough to work visually. In comparison to the original too, it helps that you can actually see what is going on, with some decent cinematography from Eric Kress enhancing the set pieces.
Ben Ripley's spiritless screenplay is responsible for most of Flatliners' downfalls. Despite working with an intriguing concept, and just like the original, the botched execution means that little enthusiasm can found throughout the narrative. It all feels rather pointless actually, like a slog for Ripley, experienced by the audience too. Admittedly, Ripley lands an admirable third-act twist many doubted it would actually stick with, showing that the potential is there but it goes largely unfulfilled and for every moment that works, there is another that doesn't work.
But the biggest flaw here is the uninspired characters. With next to no characterisation between them, little separates the four medical students undergoing the flatlining process. As we watch a film play out that forces us through the same build-up, flatline, dream, nightmare cycle, we rely on the characters to provide a new experience each time - but there's no personality to any of them. They all experience the same thing; they are react to it in the same way; they all deal with the same agitation and guilt. What do we have that makes watching the same cycle play out four times worthwhile? Very little. It becomes dull and repetitive, and with no meat to these characters, it becomes very difficult to sympathise with many - if any - of them at all.
Any emotion you feel towards them is down to the best efforts of a cast held hostage to their weak counterparts. Most are forced to deliver melodramatic performances that delve into horror tropes as predictable as they are annoying, and while passable on the whole, the cast deserve better. Page helms it with any emotion and hint of a backstory that appears unresolved, while Clemons is the best of a tortured bunch. Norton feels miscast, while Dobrev takes on the archetypical female-in-a-horror-film role. Luna is the only one provided with something of a little more substance, but his character (while in the right) is treated as a burden.
You can find entertainment in Flatliners. If it came on the television one day, you may consider keeping it on the in the background. While obviously flawed, it is not a complete disaster and I actually prefer it to the original. Despite all their might, the talented cast cannot save a weak script and the direction isn't creative enough to elevate it either, indulging in horror tropes and conventions at a disappointing rate.
Summary: Dead-on-arrival but not as awful as the reviews suggest, Flatliners perishes at the hands of a weak script and dreadful characters, despite solid efforts from the cast and lowered expectations all-round. Please, do not resuscitate.