There is no place for second best in the team of medical students supervised by Doctor Barry Wolfson, for those who wish to get by with the minimum of effort and expect to become qualified medical professionals. Instead, Doctor Wolfson expects – nay, demands – those who will achieve new discoveries in medical science, who will “push the dial on human knowledge.”
This is ironic, as Doctor Wolfson is played by Kiefer Sutherland, who twenty seven years ago played medical student Nelson Wright in Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners, a film now revived in a pointless and inferior top-to-bottom remake by director Niels Arden Oplev, Sutherland’s presence offering nothing than an attempt to legitimise the endeavour, his character playing no significant part in proceedings despite the obvious opportunity to revisit and advance the themes of the original.
Following a brief prelude depicting an accident caused by a moment of inattention, the opening titles are a montage of funereal images and overlapping voices describing near-death experiences, the feeling being nothing so much as the introduction to a true-life spooky event re-enactment show on a cheap cable channel before the narrative jumps forward nine years.
Courtney Holmes (X-Men: Days of Future Past‘s Ellen Page), now a medical student driven by the death of her sister and obsessed with the afterlife, enlists the help of her classmates in investigating near death experiences, stopping her heart while monitoring brain activity before they resuscitate her so she can examine the activity in her brain during the brief interlude of death.
Displaying evidence of enhanced cognitive abilities – immediate recall of obscure medical texts, a returning musical aptitude ignored for over a decade – those around her step up to be the next guinea pigs, Jamie (Mr. Turner‘s James Norton), Marlo (The Final Girls‘ Nina Dobrev) and Sophia (Extant‘s Kiersey Clemons), while Ray (Rogue One‘s Diego Luna) stands on hand to assist in the revivals but refuses to go under himself, and predictably there are frightening side-effects which only manifest once all have flatlined.
Perhaps a reflection of modern medicine, the doctors are on top, competitive and bitchy, the patients secondary, and while the film acknowledges the insane pressure on the students to achieve in impossible conditions of sleep deprivation and the financial burden on those not possessed of trust funds, no effort is made to make any of the characters interesting or likeable; Marlo is a good person not because of any actions depicted but because Ray describes a good deed he once witnessed, a flimsy vicarious testimony.
While Schumacher’s film was undeniably a product of its specific neon-strip-lit time it was interesting to watch whereas Oplev’s post-mortem vision feels determined to slip into cinematic anonymity as swiftly as it can, the waking nightmares little more than bangs and creepy voices in the dark, a science fiction thriller about consequences and responsibility awakened as a mundane by-the-numbers studio horror populated by pretty people, screenwriter Ben Ripley bringing not one notion of originality to the earlier work of Peter Filardi.
The enhanced medical technology developed since the original Flatliners was released offering new avenues for exploring the underlying concept, perhaps moving more into the territory of Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm, any such hope is swiftly dashed as the smartest brains in the class stay several pages behind the audience at every hesitant step as they fail to question the dangers of the euphoria they experience, a sensation which the audience sadly and notably do not share.