Turns out we did not need another version of the 1990 Joel Schumacher hit|
by Adam Nayman, published on September 29, 2017 - 6:22 PM EDT
Whenever I’m really bored at a movie, I like to try a thought experiment: What if all the main roles were recast with the actors from Adult Swim’s priceless Childrens Hospital? This technique has gotten me through some tough times over the past few years. I survived Jackie by imagining Malin Akerman chirping the first lady’s lines in a blood-spattered pink pantsuit (and visualizing Nick Offerman as LBJ); I toughed through the most repetitive parts of It by swapping out Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise for Rob Corddry’s Dr. Blake Downs, who also believes strongly that laughter is the best medicine.
I’m not sure that this game, which I hereby use this space to copyright, has ever been better suited to a movie than Niels Arden Oplev’s agonizingly dull remake of Flatliners—which, like Childrens Hospital, is at its core a cautionary tale about a group of cruel, horny, incompetent medical professionals hypocritically violating their Hippocratic oaths every way they can. The reason Childrens Hospital was so brilliant for seven seasons is that its creative team—including honorary honcho David Wain—understood that genre (in this case, the modern network-TV medical drama, à la E.R. and especially Grey’s Anatomy) has to be respected before it can be demolished. This is why some of the show’s best episodes, including its all-time great series finale, are funniest as riffs on formal and narrative clichés rather than joke machines.
Flatliners is a movie made by people who don’t respect genre but try to fake it; I bet Wain and Corddry could have crafted a more disciplined and entertaining thriller even if they didn’t try to be funny. For instance, I would have much preferred that the main character here, Dr. Courtney Holmes, was played by Erinn Hayes instead of Ellen Page. (No offense to Page, who also probably wishes that she was not in this movie, either.) Courtney, who lives with the guilt of a car accident that killed her younger sister, is obsessed with near-death experiences and wants to use state-of-the-art brain-scanning technology to study them and probe the possibility of an afterlife. To which I say: Fair enough, but on Childrens Hospital, Dr. Lola Spratt faked her own death and spent most of a season hanging around pretending to be a ghost—a scenario that makes more sense than most of what happens in the script here.
I will give writer Ben Ripley credit for not just slavishly copying Joel Schumacher’s 1990 original, which was not a particularly good movie but became a surprise box office smash because it costarred Julia Roberts and was released in the wake of Pretty Woman. At that point, Schumacher had directed the Brat Pack drama St. Elmo’s Fire and the juvenile vampire drama The Lost Boys, and he brought to Flatliners a similar sense of parents-just-don’t-understand brashness. With its hot, young cast and vaguely MTV aesthetic, Flatliners fit into a cycle of Gen X allegories about comfortably numb characters chasing dangerous sensations; when Kiefer Sutherland’s character looks out at the city and says “Today is a good day to die,” he could be one of Bret Easton Ellis’s antiheroes, with less than zero to lose.
It’s an in-joke that Sutherland shows up in Flatliners 2.0 in weird aging makeup and underneath white hair that makes him look a lot like his father. In interviews, the actor suggested that he’s playing the same character as he did in Schumacher’s film, which is ridiculous but must have kept him amused on set, at least. Sutherland’s mix of arrogance and brilliance the first time around him made him a relatively compelling protagonist, whereas Courtney’s obsession with finding out what lies in the great beyond feels like a plot point rather than a deeper calling. And the fellow med students she enlists to carry out her plans are all lithe ciphers, starting with entitled, rich prick Jamie (James Norton), whose defining trait is that he wants to have sex with everybody around him. (In my Childrens Hospital remake, he’s played by Rob Huebel as the erotomaniac Dr. Owen Maestro.)
And so it goes: Sophia (Kiersey Clemons, but really it should be Lake Bell) is an overachiever with mommy issues; Marlo (Nina Dobrev, but really it should be Malin Akerman) talks only about wanting to be taken seriously; Ray (Diego Luna) is straitlaced and skeptical but goes along with things because he’s trying to sleep with Marlo (obviously, this should be Ken Marino, who, while we’re on the subject, might be the greatest American actor).
In Schumacher’s Flatliners, the hallucinations suffered by the characters after they’d drugged and defibrillated themselves into critical condition had a nicely tactile, surreal quality. Oplev, who directed the Swedish adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, has no gift at all for dreamlike imagery. The only way the plot works is if, after reviving from her first flatlining session, Courtney is able to convince her colleagues that what she saw in her liminal state was exhilarating enough to risk their lives for. However, as all we see are some vaguely fluorescent establishing shots of Toronto (whose civic identity is totally unhidden and will serve as the sole source of delight to all of its citizens who see this movie), it’s hard to buy flatlining as any kind of transcendent experience.
Still, the parts where Courtney and her friends are having fun nearly killing themselves—and then waking up feeling refreshed enough to spray each other with champagne and hit lakefront outdoor raves in the middle of the night (which I’ve never seen in Toronto, but then I don’t get out much)—beat the stuff in the second half, when the characters start getting haunted at night by malevolent figures from their respective pasts. I was no great fan of It, but all you need to appreciate Andy Muschietti’s way with a jump-scare is to watch Oplev try and fail to make the old ghost-girl-hiding-in-the-bathtub cliché work. At one point, Courtney and James (who also start robotically and enthusiastically hooking up after flatlining, which is basically a Childrens Hospital plot point) are comparing notes on what it’s like, and she asks him if he saw anything disturbing, to which he replies, no. It’s always nice when movies about which there’s nothing worthwhile to say find the time to review themselves.