Sunday 15 October 2017

Flatliners (2017) - Movie Review

Even though history doesn’t exactly carry that much regard for filmmaker Joel Schumacher, I can’t help but think that his legacy has been unfairly discarded. Most remember him for the legendary failure that is Batman & Robin, and it’s honestly the kind of film designed to destroy careers in the first place, but the guy’s body of work stretches far beyond that. Me personally, while his more silly tendencies do factor into a lot of the guy’s films, when he indulges in his darker sensibilities, he is un-goddamn-touchable. From the look into self-induced paranoia of The Number 23 to his examination of the sex industry and the darkness within with 8MM, right down to Falling Down, a film I genuinely think changed my larger worldview for the better after first watching it. Basically, the guy either makes really good dark cinema or really cheesy cinema; he’s far better at the former than the latter.
One such example of this is the original Flatliners, a film that, once it found a consistent tone, made for good psycho-thrills; you can probably guess already what draws me to this guy’s filmography. Of course, knowing the track record for sequels-masquerading-as-remakes, learning about today’s film made my heart sink a little bit. But hey, maybe there’s another surprise in store for us; after all I’ve covered this year, I wouldn’t put it past anyone to succeed against the odds. Take a deep breath, like it could be your last, and let’s get started.

The plot: Medical students Courtney (Ellen Page), Ray (Diego Luna), Marlo (Nina Dobrev), Jamie (James Norton) and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) become involved in an unorthodox experiment devised by Courtney: Stop their heartbeats for 2 minutes and test if there truly is a life after death. As each goes through the experiment, their experiences give them a new lease on life and possibly awakened talents they never knew they had. However, it seems that they may have brought something back with them from the other side.

Page does exceedingly well as the core of the main group, providing the impetus for the main events while also giving a harrowing depiction of how those events affected her character. Even considering how well everyone else does here, Page manages to outshine everyone here. Norton as the trust-fund kid of the group gets across most of the free-spiritedness connected to the main plot, and the way he handles the tightrope of being a dick but also someone the audience would willingly watch on screen is very commendable. Dobrev has easily the most complex character to work with, the kind-hearted doctor who will do anything to keep her position, and she manages to do very well with it. Bonus points for having the subplot with the creepiest visuals.
Clemons as the uber-stressed student fits in very nicely and, along with giving another great performance, her very existence ends up raising some added questions concerning the film’s theme of the things that plague the mind. Luna as what is essentially the control of the experimenting group keeps everyone else grounded, and his scenes with Dobrev make for the bigger emotional impacts of the film. And then there’s Keifer Sutherland apparently reprising his role from the original film, although his character is so inconsequential that it feels like he’s only here for fanservice. Shame, considering his inclusion could have made for some interesting ideas, but the rest of the cast more than makes up for that.

With the characters as a surprisingly strong backbone, the film’s approach to psycho-horror is mostly good. All of the main cast playing medical students already gives the film a good head-start when it comes to things that can crush a person’s mind due to stress and guilt. Medicine, because of the frequently morbid nature of the work, requires a person to be both attentive and emotionally detached so that they can do their job without it affecting them to the point of fearful inaction. Institutional study, regardless of what level, is the act of putting a person into one of the single most stressful situations possible; all those deadlines and sleepless nights studying, as well as the procrastination on both, can do awful things to a person’s sense of wellbeing.
Combining the two… well, it’s far from pleasant, made even less so by how much baggage our characters are carrying with them to begin with. Destruction is the main thread tying them together, whether it’s death, perceived death or even doing permanent damage to a person’s standing with their peers. Through that, director Niels Arden Oplev and cinematographer Eric Kress create a nice variety of initially-serene images for the titular flatlining… and also rather terrifying sequences for the aftershock. While the heavy presence of jump scares (and specifically jump scares that exist solely for the audience, rather than actually affecting the characters on-screen) is a bit disconcerting, the film’s handling of tension makes the chills very effective in spite of that.

Rather than draw this analysis out with constant comparisons to the original, I’ll just stick with a single point: This film is far more ambiguous about what is actually going on. In the original, while it also tried a hand at this approach, most of the signs pointed to what we and the characters were seeing as a side-effect of brain damage from the procedure. Here, it’s not nearly that clear. Is the experience a form of personal awakening? Possibly, as we see in the initial improvements each person goes through and the sense of freedom that comes with it. Is it the result of brain damage? Given the experiment, that is still likely, especially considering the hardcore hallucinating that goes on. Is it the work of some demonic force? Well, while that possibility is brought up in the text itself, it doesn’t that concrete a sense of otherworldly influence; a lot of it ends up being internal. Is it proof of the afterlife? Who fucking knows?
And ultimately, this makes the film work out a lot better. By keeping its cards relatively close to its chest, the spectrum of reactions to both the experiment and the results all manage to stick. Whether it’s the elation at what these people are now capable of, the sense of liberation at a unique glimpse at the other side, or the horror at how much their past sins come back to haunt them, it all fits without anything feeling all that out of place. The emphasis on youth helps that too, coming across as a morbid but still natural extension of young curiosity and sense of adventure; when I said that the stress of schooling does bad things to people, that includes what people are willing to do to get away from it.

As I mentioned point-blank in a review not that long ago, pretty much everyone has gone through a negative event that likely had a serious impact on them. However, rather than talking about just erasing it from one’s mind as before, this is more about the lingering need for resolution of said negative event. It’s the kind of thing that keeps people up at night: Remembering something stupid or even damaging that you did to someone else years or even decades earlier, and still wanting to make amends for it no matter how minor the indiscretion or how much time has passed since. Like the original, this film looks at the character’s past actions, brought back up to the surface by the experiment, and their attempts to deal with it. Unlike the original, the cathartic equation has been added to. Eventually, they come to the agreement that they should try and make those amends to those that they wronged, lifting the weight off their conscience and possibly holding off the horrific visions. However, what the film and its characters end up admitting is that seeking forgiveness from the other party is only half of the solution; there’s also getting forgiveness from yourself for what you believe you did.
As the film’s tension continues to rise, and the visions become more aggressive and dangerous, each character’s approach to absolution ranges from admission of guilt to reluctant obscuring of guilt. Through that, as everything begins to conclude, the film gives a depiction of guilt and personal responsibility that doesn’t completely decry the offenders, but also admits that they have to come to terms with what they have done. Knowing how the concept of “personal responsibility” has been twisted and mangled of late in terms of accusations, this level-headed and far-encompassing of an approach provides a lot of resonance and, by film’s end, it more than makes its case for existing alongside the original.

All in all, this might come as much of a shock for most people but this is actually better than the original. Even as someone with a definite fondness for Schumacher’s darker material, I have to admit that this film’s overall execution is incredibly satisfying. The acting is very strong, the characterization is fleshed-out to within an inch of its afterlife, the visuals can be a bit cheesy but ultimately work at delivering that sense of existential dread, and the writing gives a portrait of guilt that makes it out like, with enough effort and the right push, it is always possible to be forgiven. As someone with a comparably New Testament approach to personal absolution, I have nothing but praise for the core sentiment, especially when it’s executed this well.

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