I spent much of Flatliners’s first half trying to figure out if there was anything technically redeeming about Jan de Bont’s photography. While it’s easy to qualify certain failings—with Schumacher’s bad directing, with Eugenio Zanetti’s obnoxiously ostentatious production design, could de Bont actually shoot it well? No, he couldn’t. But it also doesn’t somehow excuse the photography, which doesn’t improve on any of Schumacher’s bad ideas. The nearest I can get to a compliment is to say it also doesn’t worsen any of Schumacher’s bad ideas; it’s also impossible to imagine Schumacher’s bad ideas being worse so it’s all a wash.
We get a sense of Flatliners’s race towards the bottom from the first scene, which has “star” Kiefer Sutherland unable to essay talking to Lake Michigan on the morning he’s going to die. Peter Filardi’s hack script skips the first act where medical student Sutherland decides he’s going to shock himself to death to see what’s on the other side. Instead, the film starts in the second act with Sutherland ready to go ahead with his plan and trying to cajole his classmates into helping him (basically combination grooming and guilting them, or threatening them with vague sexual assault in Julia Roberts’s case). Though, on that last one, it’s not like Sutherland’s an outlier in predatory behavior towards only girl on in the club Roberts, all the other guys—William Baldwin, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Bacon—treat her similarly. It’s just a question of who’s going to successfully coerce her into the sack.
I think even “good guy” Bacon is the one who tells her it’s not okay for her to be friends with dudes and not hook up with at least one of them.
Bacon ends up being the good guy because after Sutherland dies and comes back—the Museum of Science & Industry stands in for the extremely unsanitary medical school (there’s no medical advisor in the credits, not sure if they couldn’t find one or Schumacher thought he knew all the possible doctor stuff) and the “lab” where they’ll be killing each other and bringing each other back to life looks like a thirties Frankenstein set, albeit with a bunch of wall-size Rembrandt reproductions. But when Sutherland comes back, he doesn’t tell his friends the truth—they all want to be on “60 Minutes” talking about proving Heaven is for real—because the truth is a ghostly little kid, Joshua Rudoy, has followed Sutherland out of the afterlife to beat the shit out of him on the regular.
The only good thing about Flatliners is Rudoy’s scenes where he beats the crap out of Sutherland. Everything else is one kind of garbage or another, with the only not incompetent performances coming from Roberts, Bacon, and Platt, though it’s a stretch with all of them. Overall Roberts is probably best because she’s got the least bad to do, while Bacon’s lousy for the first quarter of the film but gets better once he’s got to play hero opposite Sutherland’s jackass villain. Platt’s just around for occasional comic relief and to drop expository hints from the things we missed in the absent first act of the story.
Baldwin’s bad but Sutherland’s terrible. Baldwin’s just playing a sexual predator himbo, which he can handle through his impressions of his older brother(s)—his hair’s a trip though—whereas Sutherland’s supposed to be complicated and complex but is really just a potentially murderous dick (he wants to screw with Bacon’s afterlife experience because Bacon’s better at conning Roberts into the sack than Sutherland, who’s just creepy and threatening with her, not charmingly grooming her).
It’s a very long, very stupid movie with hilariously bad composition from Schumacher—who shoots it Panavision but composes it for the VHS pan-and-scan transfer—with bad music from James Newton Howard, bad editing from Robert Brown, atrocious writing from Filardi, and that unfortunately indefensible photography from de Bont.
Flatliners “flatlines” from the first scene. Waiting to see if it somehow improves from rancid garbage is on the audience.