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Movie review: Routine remake 'Flatliners' struggles to justify its existence

POSTED: October 3, 2017 9:09 a.m.
Josh Terry/

Dr. Barry Wolfson (Kiefer Sutherland) in Columbia Pictures' "Flatliners."

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"FLATLINERS" — 2 stars — Diego Luna, Ellen Page, Nina Dobrev, James Norton; PG-13 (violence and terror, sexual content, language, thematic material and some drug references); in general release

“Flatliners” would be a great name for a documentary about all the lifeless remakes and reboots Hollywood has cranked out in the last few years that have died at the box office. Instead, Niels Arden Oplev’s “new” film is just the latest to give frustrated moviegoers ammunition in their argument that Hollywood has run out of original ideas.

Like the 1990 original starring Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland, “Flatliners” tells the story of a group of med students who start conducting dangerous experiments to research the possibility of life after death. This time, the group is led by Courtney (Ellen Page), who is trying to atone for a car crash that took the life of her younger sister nine years earlier.

Determined to find out if there is anything on the “other side,” Courtney comes up with a procedure whereby her heart will be stopped temporarily, allowing a scanner to record her post-death brain activity before she is revived. After the first successful test, Courtney comes back with an increased capacity for mental recall and creative skill, so what starts as scientific research quickly becomes the ultimate trip for her hyper-competitive, thrill-seeking classmates.

Then, naturally, everything goes bad, as the various participants discover that their trips to the other side have awakened the ghosts of their own secret pasts. Courtney is being stalked by what seems to be her dead sister. Sex-crazed alpha male Jamie (James Norton) is stalked by visions of a past conquest he abandoned to an abortion procedure. Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) finds her med school stresses replaced by suffocating guilt over having cyber-bullied a high school classmate, and the otherwise kind-hearted Marlo (Nina Dobrev) is tormented by a patient who died when she issued him the wrong medicine.

Only Ray (Diego Luna) is safe from the vengeance-minded entity, since he never “flatlined,” but he’s still on the hook since he participated in the procedures. It’s not a bad setup — which is probably why “Flatliners” got made back in 1990 — but Oplev’s film gradually gets bogged down by a weak story and finishes with a very unsatisfying ending.

The bigger problem is that at no point does “Flatliners” ever offer any justification for its own existence. Usually a remake will come with at least the subtle suggestion that the classic original will now be updated with 21st-century special effects, or offer some kind of twist like converting animation to live action, or, in the case of last year’s “Ghostbusters,” switching to an all-female cast. But all “Flatliners” does is give us a new batch of good-looking, underdeveloped characters who seem to be going through the motions. The film has nothing to say.

The scares are mild, the story is tepid, and “Flatliners” feels destined to be a watchable-if-pointless movie that you catch on cable at 1 a.m. when you are absolutely determined to not go to bed. Fans of the first film are at least given a cameo appearance from Sutherland, but coiffed in a comically distracting throwback hairstyle, even that feels like a metaphor for a movie that can’t escape the elephant in its room.

"Flatliners" is rated PG-13 for violence and terror, sexual content, language, thematic material, and some drug references; running time: 110 minutes.

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