Hollywood’s defibrillator acumen on long-dormant properties continues with “Flatliners,” only without any real shock to life to justify remaking the 1990 cheating-death thriller starring Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts.
Keeping original writer Peter Filardi’s same basic structure of cocky medical students checking into the beyond for a few minutes for ostensibly research-oriented reasons, only to discover the afterlife has aftereffects, Swedish director Niels Arden Opley (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) and new screenwriter Ben Ripley (“Source Code”) serve up a fast-moving but seriously underwhelming and charmless display of young-and-dangerous tropes and paranormal consequences.
Where Joel Schumacher at least had the shrewd sense to overwhelm your logic-based “wait a minute” thoughts with the loopy, Franken-Vogue pleasures of phantasma-gothic design choices and fashion-spread lighting of beautiful stars, this “Flatliners” plays like a malpractice case: a cheap horror film grafted on to an episode of “House.”
The movie begins by setting up the psychic baggage of one of its thrill seekers: a horrific car accident that claims the little sister of med student Courtney (Ellen Page), who was driving. Once the opening credits finish, however, one quickly misses the insane medieval-cathedral spookiness of the original’s not-of-this-world hospital when we’re introduced here to the more realistic, harshly lit interiors of fictional Trinity Emmanuel.
Dutiful, compassionate Courtney is one of a handful of hotly competitive doctor wannabes: trust-fund rake Jamie (James Norton, “Happy Valley”), whose goal is Dr. Oz-like fame; permanently stressed Sophia (Kiersey Clemons, “Dope”), pressured to achieve by her hard-driving mom; and flirty bickerers Ray (Diego Luna), an ex-fireman who likes pranks, and well-heeled Marlo (Nina Dobrev, “The Vampire Diaries”), who assumes she’s always being underestimated.
Courtney’s outward calm masks a secret fascination, however, which she reveals to Jamie and Sophia after insisting they meet her after midnight in an unused, fully-operational bunker hospital underneath the building. Courtney’s pitch: Help me die, record my brain activity, revive me, become superstar experts on the afterlife! Though you’d think it would take at least a few days for ambitious twentysomethings to ponder the ramifications of a colleague-killing experiment out of a mad scientist scenario, they hop on board.
When things get hairy, Ray is called in to help pull her out, but not before we see Courtney’s experience, which in the pantheon of otherworldly cinematic manifestations — including the “Lost Boys” aesthetics of Schumacher’s version — is a major letdown: think routine swooping crane shot over the tops of buildings, and balls of light. Courtney’s review? An “untethering,” and “kind of sexual.” I guess the first rule of Flatliners Club is “Oversell.”
But then Courtney is suddenly better at diagnosing patients, and playing the piano — after 12 years away from it! — so Jamie calls dibs the following night. (The screenplay gives him Sutherland’s line from the original: “It’s a good day to die.”) Jamie’s visions include a hot blonde and a motorbike ride, but then the girl disintegrates.
No matter, the gang’s new trippy pastime is like the ultimate rave drug: afterlife afterparty behavior involves club revelry, driving fast, tearing down apartment walls and hooking up with each other. But soon nobody can ignore the more malevolent daytime visions, which bring up unresolved past sins and guilty consciences via wronged parties acting like boogeymen and -women. And in one surprising deviation from the 1990 film, this “Flatliners” makes good on the title’s threat by having one character’s freakout result in death.
And yet the movie never quite stretches beyond facile philosophizing (and even more facile scares) to make good on the dark outrageousness of the premise. Between the run-of-the-mill fright sequences and the non-existent visual style of the near-death bits, Opley opts for fast pacing to make up the difference, which has the effect of cheapening everything.
The cast, too, though more diverse this time around, is a mixed bag of emotional straight-shooters like Page and Luna, and superficial archetypes like Norton and Dobrev. The most charismatically energetic turn is Clemons’, but it’s in the service of a character whose hidden sin seems out-of-left-field cruel for the person we initially got to know (while at least updating the theme of youthful bullying that marked the original). In the end, this quintet rarely feels like a believably tight-knit group, even when sharing their taboo secret.
As for the big question mark surrounding Sutherland’s appearance and whether that makes this “Flatliners” a reboot or a sequel, his character is, yes, a doctor — the students’ perfection-demanding overseer — but named differently. So what was the point, exactly, of casting him? Had the trenchoat-wearing Promethean megalomaniac of the blue-fog original gone into teaching, this lackluster retelling might have found a novel way to mix the melodramatic silliness of Schumacher’s version with the tech-centered, fright-flick ethos of Opley’s. Add “missed opportunity,” then, to the catalog of meh that is the 2017 “Flatliners.”