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Flatliners (1990)

[Flatliners] Flatliners
Columbia Pictures, 1990
Rated: R in North America, 15 in the UK
Running time: 111 minutes
Director: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Keifer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt
Amazon.com: NTSC DVD, NTSC VHS
Amazon.ca: NTSC DVD, NTSC VHS
Amazon.co.uk: PAL DVD, PAL VHS
TowerRecords.com: NTSC DVD
Recommended by: Joe Rico

Normally a review on this web site wouldn't give such an extensive cast list, but I thought it was cool to see how many people appeared in this film on the cusp of their stardom. The backstage stories of this film would probably make interesting reading. And of course we get a multitude of "Degrees of Kevin Bacon" from this production.

"Philosophy has failed; Religion has failed; now it is up to Science." So saying, brilliant young medical student Nelson (played by Sutherland) convinces four equally brilliant colleagues to embark on an ingenious experiment to find out the answer to Life's Ultimate Question: Is there something after Death? By cooling his body down and injecting himself with drugs, Nelson hopes to achieve death (no respiration, heartbeat, or brain activity), and then be revived by his friends without harm. The revived hero reports that there is something after life. The experiment is a success, but it comes at a price.

Nelson and the three other students who replicate his experiments are all visited by a sin they committed (or in one case thinks they've committed.) Not just a vision of the sin, there are physical manifestations in one case: a young boy whom he accidentally killed in a hazing incident beats up Nelson. The sin of Dave (played by Kevin Bacon) was his merciless teasing of a young girl when they were in grammar school. I was pleased to note that, while his sin seems to be trivial in the scheme of things, the viciousness of this abuse is shown to have had a lasting effect. Joe (Baldwin) had secretly filmed numerous women he had sex with, despite being engaged to another. It was interesting that this was regarded as a sin, in light of the Hollywood/neo-pagan ethic regarding sexual activity: "if none ye harm then do as ye may."

Though religion is never referenced at all except for the quote above, the idea of a judgmental afterlife is very much in the Christian tradition. So too is the solution to the dilemma proposed by Dave: atonement. Dave begs his now-adult victim for forgiveness. Joe achieves closure when his videotape collection is found by his fiancée, who rejects him. Nelson must return to the afterlife to find peace. Sins have consequences, but forgiveness is always available.

Julia Roberts' character's "sin" is that she thinks she was responsible for her father's suicide. She learns through a vision that her father was a heroin addict, and that this is what caused him to commit suicide. Her sin was perceived and not real, which detracts from the other cases. Neither Dave nor Joe perceived that what they had done was wrong, and Nelson thought he had already "paid" for his sin by going to reform school. But despite this inconsistency, this film affirms traditional Christian values in an non-traditional manner.

As for the experiment, I found myself wondering if we could ever really know the infinite through such means. No many how many people had the same experience, there would always be those who would dismiss the reports of an afterlife as a shared delusion, an unknown physical phenomena, etc. This is exactly how humanists have dismissed near death experiences.

Two quick notes: I like the lighting work in this film, washout scenes, very dark and very light sets done by Peter Donner. Many others found this annoying. And it was interesting to see a relatively sleek Oliver Platt (Bicentennial Man [Amazon.com: NTSC DVD/NTSC VHS, Amazon.ca: NTSC DVD/NTSC VHS, Amazon.co.uk: PAL DVD], Deadline (TV.)) run up stairs and jump fences.

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