Joel Schumacher’s 1990 schlocksterpiece “Flatliners” was perhaps most notable for taking a silly but strangely compelling premise (a gang of sexy, thrill-seeking medical students who intentionally “flatline” to experience a little slice of death) as well as a stacked cast of young talent (Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon), and somehow doing nothing much of note with either of them. So say this much for director Niels Arden Oplev’s decent-looking yet deadly dull remake – it’s nothing if not faithful to the original. About as inessential as reboots get, “Flatliners” finds a replacement cast of equally overqualified actors, and beefs up its depictions of the afterlife with some updated visual effects, but otherwise offers no reason for reanimating this long-expired property.
Taking over Sutherland’s old role is Ellen Page, who stars as Courtney, a serious medical student for whom a childhood tragedy has prompted an interest in the afterlife. Discovering an unused basement facility beneath the hospital where she’s a medical resident, and perhaps moved by the tough-love motivations of her cranky professor (Sutherland, appearing for purely meta reasons), she hatches a plan to research brain activity after death by using herself as a test subject.
The film doesn’t waste much time exploring what pushed this promising future doctor to risk her life in the name of nebulous research, and neither do the two fellow students she recruits to stop her heart and subsequently jolt her back to life: Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), Courtney’s spunky buddy beset by self-confidence issues, and Jamie (James Norton), a callow trust-fund himbo who lives on his own private yacht. After a short spell of handwringing, they go along with the plan — Courtney flatlines, and the film’s visual effects team cooks up some trippy if unimaginative imagery to illustrate her sojourn to the great beyond. Arriving just in time to help bring her back into the light are Ray (Diego Luna), the one halfway reasonable student in the group, and Marlo (Nina Dobrev) a hotshot resident who wears spiky high heels while on rounds and righteously exclaims things like, “this isn’t science, it’s pseudoscience!”
At first, the experience seems to have been a positive one. Courtney’s brain gets a jumpstart, and she finds herself suddenly remembering arcane details from old medical textbooks, arousing jealousy from her hypercompetitive peers, who all want their turns going under. (Herein lies the film’s one clever update: While the Gen X flatliners cheated death for a cheap thrill, their millennial counterparts do it in search of better grades.)
Despite the film’s brief attempts to convince us otherwise, none of these experiments seem to reveal much of anything about post-mortem brain activity, nor do they spark any sort of philosophical or theological epiphanies. They do, however, put our motley gang of medicals in the mood to party, and the film’s running time swells an extra 10 minutes to accommodate some mild sequences of drinking, dancing and screwing.
In spite of their medical training, it comes as something of a surprise to our heroes to learn that temporarily killing themselves might bring about unintended consequences, and all of them begin to experience spooky visions and hallucinations. It takes them an agonizingly long time to figure out why this is happening, and the film promptly devolves from a goofy ‘90s throwback into a thoroughly flat J-horror throwback, full of cheesy jump scares and plenty of angry figures with dark eye makeup glowering in doorways.
As dull as it gets, “Flatliners” never sinks all the way into outright fiasco, and there’s enough talent both behind and in front of the camera to keep things on the right side of basic competence. The actors do what they can with the material, and Oplev happens upon a few decent visual ideas. What’s missing, however, is any indication why anyone involved wanted to revisit this material. While many remakes struggle to break out of the shadow of their hallowed source material, the original “Flatliners” was no one’s idea of a classic, providing ample opportunities for improvement on which this film stubbornly refuses to seize.