Review: Flatliners (cinema)

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Well, if you’ve read the first post here, or the ‘about’ section…finally, this is what I claimed this blog would be all about! Me watching terrible movies/movies I’d otherwise never watch because there’s an actor in them whose imdb page I feel compelled to go through in detail. The thing is, I’ve realised that there are a lot of people more dedicated to doing that than I am these days. And also, whilst I have copies of Milk and Elysium, I’ve not felt like I’ve really had the surplus of time required to make myself watch them. But I’m still paying Cineworld, and I missed my chance to see The Limehouse Golem, so off I went to see this shirtless Diego Luna scene I’ve been hearing so much about.

I’m not a fan of horror movies as a rule; my exceptions could probably be counted on one hand and might still stretch the definition of horror. Examples: An American Werewolf in LondonShadow of the Vampire, Get Out and Let the Right One In. Luckily, this is not quite what I’d call a horror film: there’s an underlying point to the shocks in a way you don’t always seem to get. Possibly its lack of commitment to being a simple horror is what hampers it, but I’m going to go with the problem being its lack of commitment to not being a horror film. I mean, look at that naff advertising above, with the exaggerated CGI ghost-figures. Diego Luna’s character doesn’t even flatline! And though on a meta level you might argue that what they unleash by flatlining is just a darker version of their own selves, it’s certainly not in the demonic way the ad people went with. So yeah, I’m not saying there was a particularly subtle or effective point to the horror, but it was there. Expect spoilers below — and a total ignorance of the original Flatliners. I meant to watch it beforehand, but ran out of time for that too.

On the whole, this movie was a bit better than I was expecting, and considerably more entertaining, even if in hindsight there are a LOT of holes. Ellen Page gave a good performance with very slim material to work on. She plays Dr Courtney Holmes, a medical student obsessed with finding out what happens to our brains after the moment of death. There’s a bit of an abrupt start to the film that makes it hard to engage with any of the characters much, but it’s obvious enough that Courtney is racked with guilt and grief about causing the death of her young sister in a driving accident. To be honest, I expected them to go with the idea that she’d already had a near-death experience in the crash, and hence wanted to learn more, but that might have involved a bit more plotting that the film seemed willing to do… Instead we have to figure out how heavily this still weighs on her by Ellen Page’s hunched shoulders and glassy stare.

As Courtney assembles her two assistants for the procedure she wants to perform — stopping her heart and then restarting it a minute later, whilst scanning for ongoing brain activity — we get only the mildest hints of the group dynamic. This isn’t Grey’s Anatomy where, despite the competition, anxiety and depression, the student doctors all ultimately (well, sort of) support each other and look out for one another. At the beginning of the movie competitiveness wins out over all else. So we meet the struggling Sophia, worried about her grades and the money her Mom spent on getting her into Med School, and the cocky, jockish Jamie, who’s on the lookout for the kind of research that will send him up the ladder to success as swiftly as possible. The two of them panic and bungle Courtney’s revival, so they call in Ray, the competent one (who is presumably meant to be a little older and wiser after his six years in the Fire Service, and who seems to have just as much of an issue with the entitled rich kids as Sophia initially does). Ray’s rush through the hospital turns the head of Marlo, who’s been trading barbs with him over patients in some unsubtly tropey behaviour (gosh, do you think they like each other secretly?), and Marlo joins the group too.

The opening third is the weakest because the film doesn’t really allow the characters any breathing space before the experiment. Although Courtney’s motives can be guessed at, there’s a lot of scenes where the others talk about her, within earshot, while she looks a bit dazed. We’re told that she and Sophia used to be close, but seemingly not close enough that Sophia knew about her sister’s death. Courtney as a character does not exist beyond her grief for her sister and her drive to find out about the afterlife. We’re only allowed into her mind at the very last minute.

At least Jamie makes enough sense as the one to follow her into the afterlife: he’s reckless and willing to try any narcotic he can get his hands on. Ray’s refusal to take part never waivers, and I’m glad of that, but Sophia’s involvement never quite rings true. Her relationship with her mother could have been better explored — her guilt about sharing nudes of her classmate is completely justified, but what’s happened to the guilt she feels in the first scene we see her in, pressured into a role that she struggles with because of her mother’s expectations? She wants to fit in, and Marlo is seemingly the most competitive of the characters, but when so much of this has to be inferred from only one or two lines of dialogue, and the relationships are not really established beforehand, none of it really sticks.

Even Ray, who I’m delighted to say survives the movie,(1) isn’t given any depth; he’s the voice of reason, and his background is intriguing, but so much is left unsaid/unused. At one point, when I feared they might still have him flatline with the others, it occurred to me how awful his guilt-ghosts might be after his time in the Fire Service, but as they never had him do so, we don’t know whether he had any comparable guilt, or how he managed it. Not even a reference to it when he tried to talk Marlo into admitting what she’d done. Other backstories, like Jamie’s failure to help a girl he’d knocked up see her abortion through, were somewhat unimaginative and lazily handled.

Science (I mean, “science”) is also largely abandoned as soon as the effects of the flatlining begin to take hold. There’s initial excitement about the activity they see in different parts of the brain after Courtney has died, but no one thinks to return to this when they’re suffering the bad trip that comes later. Why should the last viable brain activity they can detect leave the person in a state of guilt and rage? Is this a roundabout Dylan Thomas reference? We’re all just raging against the dying of the light, right up to the last minute? Or is it a religious point? This is when our worst sins come back to haunt us, and it may as well be Hell as a product of our own subconscious? But (asks the arts student), is this actually something absorbed into the subconscious by living in a society founded on a religion that allocates punishment in the afterlife because of our failings in life? Who knows! The film doesn’t give a crap. Look at the creepy abandoned city, folks. Look at the pretty lights — now see them go out. Oh look! Here’s a sad-eyed blonde woman. She was probably wronged in some way. And now the surroundings are exploding into a dust cloud?

So essentially, the film isn’t interested in explanations beyond those you’d get in a horror movie, but the payoff doesn’t quite come with horror movie catharsis. Once all the flatliners have encountered a vision of their own guilt that haunts them most, we’re in straight-up horror territory, with fairly standard things like lights going out and radios re-tuning themselves (is this because of the electrical activity in the brain? Is it just because this is what happens in horror movies?). But there’s no fearsome Last Girl to vanquish the demon, not least because the demon is still, probably, in their own minds (Jamie’s stabbed hand muddies the waters here, unhelpfully). Instead, there’s a rather trite lesson about admitting your sins, owning up to your mistakes and then learning to forgive yourself. Um, great? Lucky the girl whose photos Sophia spread around was so forgiving. Lucky we could just cut away from Jamie’s reconciliation with the woman he knocked up — ‘hey Bobby, your Daddy loves you, but only because he fucked up his brain in a stupid medical experiment and he’s worried that if he doesn’t love you enough then a guilt-demon version of your Mom will come and kill him.’ Great basis for a constructive relationship.

Marlo’s a bit more resistant: like Courtney, she can’t ask for forgiveness from the man she accidentally killed on the job. Plus, owning up to what she did would mean disciplinary action. She seems to think that admitting what she did to Ray (who offers forgiveness through hot sex — but still holds her to account for altering autopsy records) ought to be enough, but she’s got that wild-eyed look that Izzie Stevens gets when she knows she’s going to do something rash, like cut Denny’s LVAD wire. So Marlo nearly buys it — she seems to think that by dying again, she can ‘speak’ to the man she killed and ask his forgiveness. The imagery of the scary dead black man whose death she caused repeatedly trying to strangler her is … not the most edifying part of the movie.

Incidentally, at this point I very much felt that Ray was right. Marlo should not be a doctor. But also Ray ~needs~ her to come back, and like every other flatline, Ray revives her. It’s honestly a bit of an ask to invest much in their relationship, but Diego Luna tries very hard to sell it, and he has an impressive array of concerned-disappointed frowns.

Damn, I was meant to be relatively enthusiastic about this movie. When I came out of the cinema I felt it had been far more enjoyable than I expected. And I suppose it was, despite all the problems and loose threads and plot holes picked at above. But it was quite short, and a cursory Google seems to indicate that quite a bit was changed and/or cut during the later stages of production. There were a lot of missed opportunities, and it was a movie that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. I’m more curious than I was about the original now. Watch this space, I may get round to watching it eventually. Ooh, but The Bad Batch is on Netflix…


(1) Look, Contraband was my last effort at watching a Diego Luna movie I’d otherwise not have watched. He doesn’t come off so well there. Maybe someday I’ll write up my thoughts on the first forty minutes of that film. I have a lot of them. Few are good.

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