By Jack Dignan
There’s a good film somewhere in Flatliners. There really is. During its first act, it almost reaches the surface. It nearly pulls through. The drama, the characterization and the themes present throughout the first act all work. But then the film takes things a little too far. The dramatic build up is lost, and the ridiculousness of its premise is put in the forefront. If you went in without any prior knowledge, the fact that this is a horror film wouldn’t become apparent until well into the second act, but once it makes that fateful move, that’s when the film looses what made it work.
Coming off of the backburner of It, Flatliners has a lot to live up to in terms of dramatic horror storytelling. Remaking-rebooting-continuing the story told in the 1990 film of the same name, we follow the life of aspiring medical student Courtney (Ellen Page). After a past trauma many years ago, Courtney has become obsessed with the chemical effects the brain goes through when the body dies. She, along with four of her fellow students (Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton and Kiersey Clemons), participates in an experiment they dub as ‘flatlining.’ Essentially, what happens is that they stop their hearts, scan their brain for activity and then revive themselves.
The results are astounding, but the after effects… not so much. For once they start bringing themselves back and creating somewhat of a game out of the situation, using it to expand the limits of consciousness, visions of their past traumas are manifested in the real world. The demons (sometimes literal) of their past have come to life, and they’re attacking our protagonists with a violent rage that nobody knows how to stop. It’s a horror-sci-fi-drama that plants the groundwork for a thrilling ride, only to stumble down and ruin the entirety of the movie. You know it’s a bad sign when the film’s embargo drops over 14 hours into its official release.
Director Niels Arden Oplev blew things out of the water with the 2009 Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film, but since then, he’s yet to create something nearly as memorable. His distinct, dark visual style leaves thumbprints all over this film, often creating some really memorable, visceral shots (that mostly occur in the first act), but they’re few and far between. For the most part, it feels like a generic studio production with abysmal CGI and weird, hypnotic, ugly dream sequences occurring during the actual ‘flatlining.’ They look awful, fail to entice and create a feeling of befuddlement. An initial sequence boasts with potential, but everything that follows is simply the worst.
Granted, the visuals start to make sense in the long run, but once things get explained, it opens up a vast variety of other questions that are equally puzzling and stupid. Flatliners starts out attempting to ground its story in reality. For a little while, it succeeds in this regard, but as the plot moves, and especially once the second half kicks in, logic is thrown out the window and replaced with cheap, lifeless scares and poor editing choices. A character goes from getting stabbed in the hand to, literally in the next shot, sitting around fine at a dinner party, and it’s moments like these that take you further out of the story.
The justifications behind the hauntings prove even worse than what’s already come. Its part demon-based, part self-induced, part trance, part vengeance story, yet it’s never specified which. The film leaves so much of its plot shrouded in mystery, not answering its own questions. It’s not one of those scenarios where it’s scarier when you don’t know what’s happening; you just legitimately don’t know what’s happening or why you should care. The third act takes things into a whole new realm, all while summarizing its story in the minimal amount of time. You could create an entirely separate movie just using the events from the third act, but please, let’s not continue this story any further. Have mercy on our poor, poor souls.
Every performance is admirable, especially that of Ellen Page and Diego Luna, but it’s the writing that pulls their characters down. Screenwriter Ben Ripley feels afraid to commit to anything, resulting in a mismatch of genres and ineffective scares. They’re all haunted by something in their past, and that something has a tendency to manifest itself, but the hauntings make little sense and are executed without consistency. Then, two thirds of the way through, it makes a dreadful mistake, getting rid of a key plot element and loosing the glue holding the protagonists together. After that, nothing mattered anymore. Everything took an even further decline in quality.
When it does decide to follow through with its horror elements, it fails over and over and over. The people sitting around me, gasping as the lights went off in the scene, were way scarier than anything put on the screen. Part of the problem lies within the suspense, or lack thereof. A few scares, while mostly irrelevant to the plot, are genuinely creative. They’re repeated to the point of excruciation, but there’s a bit of thought behind them. The problem is that they’re executed in a way that ruins the moment. There’s always either a bad music cue, lack of set up or jarring editing getting in the way to make the moment ineffective.
I haven’t seen the original Flatliners. I have no prior connections to this franchise. But if it’s remotely in the same realm as this new one, I can safely say I’ve lost all interest. If anybody actually finds enjoyment in this film, let me know. It’s a concept I can’t even begin to imagine. Pushing the embargoes back until after the public release initially seemed frustrating, but having now seen it, it makes total sense.
1 1/2 Stars
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