Superficially provocative and deeply silly, this film at least starts with an original idea from first-time screenwriter Peter Filardi: Obsessed with the stories of patients who died on the operating table only to be revived after a few minutes, five medical students meet secretly. Each volunteers to be put to death under the supervision of the others and then brought back to life to report his or her experiences. They call themselves flatliners (a flat line on EKG and EEG machines signifies heart and brain death).
It’s a trendy premise. And director Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, St. Elmo’s Fire) knows how to jazz up a trend. With the help of James Newton Howard’s eerie score and cinematographer Jan De Bont’s expert mix of shadow and light, Schumacher creates a mood of dread and wonder. He’s also gathered a talented young cast: Julia Roberts, the reigning screen enchantress of 1990 thanks to Pretty Woman, plays Rachel, who sees the experiment as a way of proving that death is a good place. Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland) wants the project to make him famous. Rebellious David (Kevin Bacon) and skirt-chasing Joe (William Baldwin) are professionally curious, while the cautious Randy (Oliver Platt) isn’t sure he wants to participate at all. Everything is set for a probing sf fantasy.
As ever with Schumacher, execution is the problem. The visual representations of death have a reheated 2001 patina and feature mostly regurgitations of banal childhood traumas. Joe’s vision — which deals with his habit of videotaping the women he takes to bed — has less to do with the afterlife than with the demands of the box office. Though the script often stoops to such cheap tricks, the actors hold admirably true to character. Roberts combines beauty with a no-bull delivery that commands attention. Her private moments with Bacon and Sutherland have an emotional intensity that is more compelling than all the hokum in the lab. By dodging the questions it raises about life after death, Flatliners ends up tripping on timidity. It’s a movie about daring that dares nothing.