They say the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. But while we may complain bitterly about the latter, as any maker of horror films knows, it's the former that pre-occupies our fears. Indeed, our mortal fear of What Lies Beyond is the terrifying proposition that informs every fright flick ever made. Yet in deference to commercial prospects (i.e., to make money), most horror films today traffic only in hoary, easily predictable cliches, and treat death from the arm's-length of ironic camp. Thankfully, every once in a while a film comes along that is ambitious (or just plain foolish) enough to try to graft B-movie cliches onto grander themes, and actually be about something more than knives, gore and boobs.
'Flatliners' is one of those flicks. From the outset, it promises to take us on nothing less than a journey to the afterlife itself and back, revealing the purpose of our existence along the way. That's a pretty tall order for any movie to deliver -- especially one made by a major studio and engineered for maximum box office potential. But while I can't say 'Flatliners' totally pulls it off, I do have to give it points for at least trying.
"Are you afraid to die?" asks the film's tagline. Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland) isn't. An ambitious, charismatic medical student, he persuades classmates Rachel (Julia Roberts) and David (Kevin Bacon) to join him in a reckless experiment -- to prove whether or not there's life after death, they will kill themselves with a temporary shut-down ("flatline") of their heart and brain functions. After Nelson survives the first experiment, the others follow by flatlining in increasingly longer intervals -- but their horror begins when they realize that although they've come back alive, they haven't come back alone.
As a horror flick, the central conceit of 'Flatliners' is both its blessing and its curse. Quite simply, if you're going to make a film about the very essence of life and death, you'd better have a good answer about what's on the other side, or risk unfulfilled expectations. Unfortunately, as the true consequences of the med students tours of death are slowly revealed, it's hard not to be underwhelmed. Sorry, but I personally need a bit more than a 'Twilight Zone'-style twist on old-fashioned morality plays to get my intellectual juices going. Without giving away any of the film's secrets, 'Flatliners' eventually succumbs all too easily to a thematic cliche right out of an old EC Comic: that all of the wrongs you've committed in life will ultimately come back to haunt you -- unless you make them right.
Nevertheless (and especially for its first half or so), 'Flatliners' is undeniably stylish and fun to watch. Directed by Joel Schumacher, whose Hollywood career continues to baffle most critics, the film is a prototypical early-'90s genre flick, made for the aging MTV generation still addicted to fast-cut pacing, fancy camera tricks and a cast of attractive up-and-comers.
Indeed, the film's biggest draw today probably remains its cast -- in terms of star power, it's almost as impressive as Schumacher's '80s brat pack flick 'St. Elmo's Fire.' It's hard to imagine Roberts, Sutherland or Bacon jumping at the chance to be in a movie like this these days, but at the time it was a career step-up for all of them. And if they did have any ambivalence at the time with doing what is essentially a B-grade horror flick dressed up with big studio dollars, they certainly don't let it show -- all create likable, fairly three-dimensional characters with no apparent condescension to the material.
Unfortunately, the concept of 'Flatliners' is so strong that it was perhaps inevitable that we'd be disappointed in the routine genre cliches it trots out by film's end. I continue to admire its thematic idealism and visual panache (and it's never a chore to watch Roberts or Sutherland), but it's just not enough. Is 'Flatliners' one of the genre greats, or even just a long-lost sleeper of the '90s? Sadly, no. I still give it points for ambition, but ultimately 'Flatliners,' well, flatlines.
'Flatliners' hit standard-def DVD back in 1999 with a transfer that was rather good for its time. Sony has now brought the film to Blu-ray, and a direct compare between the two versions seems to indicate that the transfer has been cleaned up a little, but hasn't been given a major overhaul. As such, this 1080p/MPEG-2 encode holds up just fine, but it certinly doesn't set a new standard for video quality.
Overall, the source is in very good shape. There are no major blemishes, such as large speckles, etc., although a slight bit of minor dirt is evident, as is a heavier veneer of film grain typical of the era. I was surprised by how solid blacks are, however, and the expansiveness of contrast is also above-average. Colors may appear a bit forced in terms of saturation, especially as the film plays stylistically with its death/dream sequences which boast vivid primaries that look a bit smeary and noisy (reds in particular suffer), but the image is certainly eye-catching, both for its glossy hues and nice sense of depth. Blacks crush slightly in the shadows, but overall depth and pop is quite nice for a release of this vintage. All in all, while not a superlative catalog transfer, 'Flatliners' rates a solid triple.
Sony provides another uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (at 48kHz/16-bit/6.9mbps) for 'Flatliners. Like the video transfer, the audio source elements are representative of the film's age, but have held up rather well.
The sound design is fairly lively and engaging, with some effective moments of envelopment. Most impressive is how dynamic the soundtrack is for its era, both in discrete effects and overall impact. Rears are frequently engaged during the "death dream" journeys, with lots of loud bursts to back channels, as well as a nice amount of bleed to the score by Dave Stewart. Imaging between channels is a bit more obvious than a modern soundtrack, with pans sometimes a bit too easy to localize. Deep bass is not overwhelmingly forceful but still has more bite than most films of this period. Dialogue also holds firm throughout -- volume balance wasn't perfect, but its issues were subtle enough that I didn't really have to make any adjustments. All things considered, not a bad soundtrack at all.
Despite the pleas of its small but enthusiastic cult fanbase, 'Flatliners' has never received a Special Edition. Like the DVD release, this Blu-ray doesn't have a single supplemental feature -- not even a Theatrical Trailer.
'Flatliners' is a thriller with a very intriguing and ambitious premise, but ultimately it fails to deliver on the promise of its setup. Still, it is notable for its (now) all-star cast (Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon), and is quite an exercise in flashy style. On that level, this Blu-ray delivers, with a very solid transfer and soundtrack for a film nearing its twentienth anniversary. Unfortunately, the complete lack of extras drags down the overall score, and may make this one a tough sell for all but the film's most devoted fans.