Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Flatliners (1990)

Director: Joel Schumacher                             Writer: Peter Filardi
Film Score: James Newton Howard               Cinematography: Jan de Bont
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Oliver Platt

There’s an absolutely fascinating parallel between this film and the early U.S. space program. Alan Shepard was the first American in space . . . and now no one cares. He was only outside the Earth’s atmosphere for a few minutes and then splashed down a few hundred miles from where he lifted off. It’s John Glenn, who was actually the first American to orbit the Earth, who is always remembered. It drove Shepard nuts because, in the instance of his flight, there was nothing new about being in space as the Russians had already been there. The real milestones became distance and duration. Joel Schumacher explores the very same idea within the setting of a horror film in Flatliners. Kiefer Sutherland is a young doctor who wants to separate himself from the pack and do something extraordinary. So he decides to have his classmates give him an injection to stop his heart and make him clinically dead for sixty seconds. If they can bring him back he’ll see himself as something of an explorer, the first man to explore death and return to tell about it. Unfortunately, as the film demonstrates in its second scene, many people have had near-death experiences. It’s when his other classmates begin “flatlining” for longer periods of time that he feels left out and forgotten as the pioneer of the idea.

The film opens on a real groaner, Kiefer Sutherland intoning the line from Little Big Man, “Today’s a good day to die.” From there, medical student Kevin Bacon is seen saving the life of a woman because no doctors are around, and being thoroughly disciplined for his efforts. Then Oliver Platt tries to come up with a title for his memoirs and settles on, “Genesis of a Young Surgeon.” Next, Julia Roberts interviews different people about their near-death experience, only to be hit on by Billy Baldwin afterward in anatomy class. Meanwhile, Sutherland is having difficulty rounding up enough of his classmates to pull off his little experiment. But by the time he’s ready to go that evening, everyone shows up. After they pull the plug on him, in Sutherland’s mind he sees himself as a child and is comforted, but at the end of the vision he’s in a dark place and something is wrong. Then they bring him back. Sutherland definitely feels changed by the experience. Roberts wants to go next, but Baldwin outbids her, willing to flatline for a minute and a half. But Sutherland is having bad dreams connected with his experience, and is reluctant to tell anyone. Baldwin’s experience is, as expected, about women, but his infidelity begins showing up on every TV screen he sees. Bacon, the atheist in the group, goes back in time to a school bus and is confronted by a little black girl he used to torment.

What becomes clear as their near-death imaginings begin to haunt their waking lives, is that it is coming from some hidden guilt they are feeling inside. But as the illusions become real, they threaten more than their sanity and the group begins to fear for their lives. Because the film isn’t really set in a hospital, it gives it a very gothic feel, opening with shots of the gargoyles atop the school. The production was filmed in Chicago during the summer, at Loyola University while the school was undergoing extensive remodeling. The other thing that adds tremendously to the gothic atmosphere is the music by James Newton Howard, who used religious choral music to augment his film score--though there is still some eighties jet lag in the form of popish instrumentation in places. This was also one of the earliest films to use color manipulation of the negative to great effect. The sets are nothing, the empty rooms in a sparsely populated medical school surrounded by diaphanous plastic sheeting and heavy wood paneling. What gives the set the ominous feel it has is the monochromatic tint that used to wash out any bright colors and give the whole thing a sepia-toned feel. You can practically feel the dust motes. This also enabled cinematographer Jan de Bont to wash the set with colored light, mostly blue, but sometimes red.

Though it’s not necessarily a horror film in the way that we typically think of one, it is a terrific supernatural thriller. The actors, though early in their careers, all do credible work as well. While I’ve never been enamored of Kiefer Sutherland, he’s certainly the right choice for the explorer who’s been left behind. I’m also not a fan of Billy Baldwin, but again, the casting couldn’t be better, and he does get what’s coming to him. Oliver Platt, is the comedy relief, but it never goes too far and he winds up being an integral part of the cast. The real star of the picture is Julia Roberts, who went into this production right out of Pretty Woman. She’s just as radiant, even with the color manipulation in the film. She obviously brings along her specific persona, but it works well. Kevin Bacon plays a little over the top for the first half of the film, but he eventually works into a believable character. Joel Schumacher does a terrific job, in a heavily stylized production, and he would work with Roberts again the following year in Dying Young. And the film was actually nominated for an Academy Award for sound editing. Despite a few bad reviews, it was a box office hit when it was first released, and also garnered a bunch of positive reviews from critics who understood the intent of the film. Flatliners is a youth picture, playing to a youth audience, a breathless supernatural romp that delivers plenty of entertainment.

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