Flatliners Blu-ray Review
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Written by Peter Filardi
1990, Region A, 114 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on July 22nd, 2014
Kiefer Sutherland as Nelson
Julia Roberts as Rachel Mannus
Kevin Bacon as David Labraccio
William Baldwin as Joe Hurley
Oliver Platt as Randy Steckle
Kimberly Scott as Winnie Hicks
Joshua Rudoy as Billy Mahoney
Benjamin Mouton as Rachel's father
Beth Grant as Housewife
Nelson, a medical student, believes he has figured out a way to cheat death and to be able to come back and report on the afterlife. Something this tricky is going to require serious assistance and he has enlisted the help of classmates and friends. There's atheist Labraccio, the womanizing Hurley, Steckle, a smart guy with some great comic timing, and Nelson's ex-flame Rachel Mannus. Together these five conspirators sneak equipment and medicine into a Chicago University building undergoing renovations and perform their death-defying trick. The group succeeds and Nelson is indeed clinically dead one moment and then returned to life less than two minutes later.
The others start playing a figurative game of Russian Roulette by upping the amount of time they are willing to play dead in order to outdo the previous experiment. What nobody expects, however, is that when you mess with the dead, something changes in you, and you might not be the same when you return. It seems our medical deviants are haunted by the sins of their past and these ghosts not only scare them, they are able to physically harm them too. What follows is a race to see if there is a way to atone for the offenses of your earlier days, or if the ultimate price really is a one-way ticket underground.
Flatliners has a great premise and largely runs with it, but the script by Peter Filardi (The Craft) could easily have benefitted from a few darker turns. The round trip to the great beyond is intriguing, but I'm surprised the majority of the characters are so shallow in their reasons for experimenting. Had one of their friends failed to resuscitate and the others were forced to continue the trips to bring him back, that would have been a stronger dynamic. The aspect of ghosts of the past coming back to haunt you is also a promising conflict for the arrogant anti-heroes content to play God, but only one of them seeks to atone for his shitty behavior.
Director Joel Schumacher (D.C. Cab) has made a lot of fun movies over the years and was at his creative peak throughout the mid 1980s and '90s. Here he throws his entire bag of tricks at the screen, including a gorgeous cast dressed in trendy fashions, surrounded by giant wind machines and placed inside stunningly colorful (occasionally black-lit) environments. This is not necessarily bad, and the operatic presentation walks a fine line that works well here but would later backfire in the director's later films like Batman & Robin (1997). Schumacher keeps things on track, narrowly avoiding several plot holes by moving things at a brisk pace and maintaining a stylistic music video design with the help of ace Cinematographer Jan De Bant (Die Hard). Flatliners features some similar moments to Schumacher's earlier films like The Lost Boys and St. Elmo's Fire, in part due to dynamic aerial photography or in other cases like familiar music cues courtesy of James Newton Howard (Falling Down).
The cast comes off as a twisted horror genre variation of The Brat Pack, but fortunately they deliver solid performances across the board and sell the whole med student angle surprisingly well. Kiefer Sutherland (Stand By Me) stars as Nelson, the leader of the pack who is confident enough to not be a dick to his friends and treats them with respect, unless you count that whole putting them in danger by running a death experiment and withholding information about the side effects. Julia Roberts (Hook) is actually quite good as Rachel, the most emotional of the group, not because she's a “pretty woman”, but because her participation has an ulterior motive that grounds her in reality.
Challenging Nelson for both the leadership and the girl is Labraccio, played by the always-watchable Kevin Bacon (Tremors). There are enough quiet moments between the two male leads to make this feel like a real friendship being stressed by a love triangle and the film is stronger for it. William Baldwin (Backdraft) objectifies women as the ever-horny Hurley, a man obsessed with making fuck tapes without his fiancée. Rounding out the group is Steckle (Oliver Platt, Lake Placid), the voice of reason who wants to support his friends, and yet his biggest risks remain rooted in academia.
Looking beyond the A-list headliners, there are three names in the supporting cast that deserve a quick mention. Joshua Rudoy (Harry and the Hendersons), who plays the haunting figure of Billy Mahoney, has little more to do than look either terrified or terrifying and handles both really well. Kimberly Scott (The Abyss) and Beth Grant (Donnie Darko) have limited screen time, but both leave lasting impressions as they are fantastic actors and always nice to see.
Flatliners remains a fun experience that works as both a medical thriller and, with its Gothic imagery, a genre film. The fact that I like the characters despite their cavalier attitudes when dealing with matters of life, death and other consequences is a real compliment to all involved. Schumacher frequently falls into the trap of not being able to deliver a decent ending to his movies – and indeed cheats here by dismissing potentially devastating medical side effects with a joke - but the ride he offers along the way is more satisfying than not, and this is one of his more rewarding efforts.
Video and Audio:
Flatliners receives an acceptable video transfer that, while not perfect, is no worse than the original Columbia Blu-ray (2007), and may in fact be the same. Presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, colors are strong and black levels are solid, but some scenes feel a bit dark and would benefit from a full remaster. Maybe next year when the film turns 25 (yikes).
In a weird move, this release ditches the DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix of the original Blu-ray, and even abandons the 5.1. Dolby Digital mix of the DVD in favor of the original stereo offering of the old VHS tape. The only audio option here is presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital track (not even an uncompressed DTS-HD 2-channel) that is a bit thin overall. There is really not much more to say about this, but it makes for a strong argument to track down the Sony release.
I think the trailer was present on some earlier releases (dating back to the Laser Disc), but even that modest feature is missing from this completely bare-bones release. If you press enough buttons, you will eventually be led to one of the worst menu screens of the Hi-Def era that features a simple “Play Movie” option. Very disappointing.