History has already begun to vindicate the Joel Schumacher apologists. Even two decades out from the poisonously received Batman and Robin, the filmmaker’s still most commonly remembered as the man who slapped a pair of nipples on Bruce Wayne’s outfit, but the tide’s changing. A new critical reappraisal is upon us, celebrating Schumacher’s campier instincts while putting the calamitous mismatch of his flamboyant directorial sensibility and the superhero genre into perspective. Schumacher’s skill lies in sculpting unexpectedly accomplished art from the marble of ridiculous ideas: Nicolas Cage infiltrating the world of snuff film, a lethal thriller taking place entire inside of a phone booth, a man who dresses up like a winged mammal to nocturnally beat up muggers. And yet a sizable faction of viewers seem to lack either the ability or the inclination to look beyond the punch line of his premises.
Which brings us to his 1990 thriller Flatliners. When boiled down to its logline, Flatliners sounds like it could be an SNL sketch as easily as a surrealist imagining of infinity: A group of ambitious medical students let their competitive spirit get out of hand and challenge one another to see who can go the longest in a state of induced death. It was at this time that the Venn diagram charting the overlap between Schumacher’s intentions and popular tastes began to widen; the mixed reviews left in the release’s wake foretold a career falling out of public favor after the Zeitgeist-capturing The Lost Boys. Despite healthy grosses and scattered praise, the film had its fair share of detractors united in frustration over a perceived dissonance between Schumacher’s comically heightened, nearly faux-melodramatic tone and its weightier meditations on mortality. As New York Times critic Caryn James wrote in her review, “Viewers are likely to go along with this film instantly or else ridicule it to death.”
In an act so perfectly analogical as to almost be suspicious, Flatliners has been unnaturally brought back to life. This past Friday saw the release of a new sequel/covert remake, courtesy of Danish journeyman Niels Arden Oplev, the hired gun on the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo film as well as scattered episodes of Under the Dome and Mr. Robot. Just as the original collected a gaggle of young stars on the precipice of the A-list (the other major Julia Roberts release in 1990 was Pretty Woman, a success so definitive for her actorly persona that she’d never make another modestly budgeted sci-fi flick again), so does the new film: Ellen Page, Vampire Diaries grad Nina Dobrev, British import James Norton, Rogue One casualty Diego Luna, and Kiersey Clemons of Dope and Neighbors 2 fame. The film seems to follow the same basic plot schematic of the original, excepting this time, flatlining imbues the hubristic students with superpowers. (Not full-blown X-Men superpowers, though, more like Limitless/first half hour of Lucy superpowers.)
And as the disparaging reviews dealt the film a humbling zero percent Rotten Tomatoes score this weekend — “artless and agonizingly boring,” raves Indiewire! “just ‘meh’,” gushes the New York Times! — we were left only to ask: Why?
Some will undoubtedly appreciate that the new film’s gender makeup has been evened out a touch, the sample size containing three women instead of one. And of course it’s for the best that the new film is not made up almost entirely of white people. Still, the issue remains that nobody can seem to figure where this all came from. Hollywood’s remake doctrine has heretofore been oriented around giving the people what they want, reviving universally beloved franchises in the hope that sheer brand recognition will be enough to get the ledgers in the black. The majority of remakes attempt to affect the appearance of tallness by standing on their own shoulders; 2016’s Point Break was the monoculture’s punishment for so unilaterally adoring the testosterone-drunk genuine article. So what’s the big idea with resuscitating a body that was, in a pretty wide estimation, dead on arrival?
Except that this is precisely how remakes should work. The deluge of “reimaginings” slathering a layer of high-gloss CGI on some cherished childhood classic — your irredeemable Alice in Wonderlands, your Oz the Great and Powerfuls — usually sully the memories and accomplish little else. Instead, remake privileges ought to be reserved for good ideas bungled in execution, scripts with promise that somehow landed in the custody of an incompetent director or a misassembled cast. In a perfect world, the remake would correct a mistake, not reproduce a success for what inevitably ends up being a diluted imitation. Perhaps this project was conceived as a chance to get it right — to win over the viewers that Schumacher’s antic streak previously alienated.
The principle’s sound, but it’s been misapplied in selecting Flatliners for a second go. Though one might be able to see where some studio boss could get the idea that there’s a great film waiting to be carved out of the concept, given its polarizing reputation, a closer look confirms that Schumacher’s original qualifies as something of a cult success. If Flatliners actually was as so-so as its 49 percent Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest, we’d be in business. But, as ever, the situation’s a bit more nuanced than that.
Schumacher took Peter Filardi’s script in a kookier direction than his overlords at Columbia would have liked, yet in doing so, he charmed the cult fan base still carrying this movie’s torch. One might wonder why the various flatlinings take place in a hospital basement that resembles a high Gothic mausoleum chamber. Schumacher’s film stands as his implicit self-evident response: Why wouldn’t they? He reaches even obscurer corners of weirdness during the many sequences visualizing the fantastical afterlife: At first, it comes as a surprise that being dead looks, to put it in medical terms, pretty lit. The idyllic early phases of the hallucinations call to mind Elysian fields, a reference point both nodded to and covertly laughed at by the recurring motif of oddly placed ribbon dancers moving through a plain. Whether in these euphoric early phases or the chilling bad trip they melt into, Schumacher seizes the opportunity to indulge in imagery a bit more abstract than could be found in the usual studio project.
The star-studded cast stood out as Flatliners’ greatest asset, however. Even as they fill broadly sketched stock types — Kiefer Sutherland’s the reckless genius, Oliver Platt’s the nerd-among-nerds comic relief, Roberts is the token woman, Kevin Bacon’s the golden boy, and Billy Baldwin is Billy Baldwin — the actors make a meal out of the smart-alecky dialogue. Sutherland gets to play grunge-rock Frankenstein and say stuff like, “Philosophy failed. Religion failed. Now it’s up to the physical sciences!” while Platt speaks almost entirely in Gen-X ironic witticisms and pop-culture references. Upon learning that he and his colleagues have successfully stopped death in its icy tracks, Platt’s student crows, “We’re finally going to have something to hold over those fucking baby boomers!”
He’s not just being flippant, either; the students really are fueled by a drive to make their mark on nothing less than the fabric of scientific history. Flatliners betrays its own smarts through its adroit take on the dog-diagnose-dog culture of medical school, where high standards encourage the students to push themselves into competition against one another. Everything’s a contest to the core quintet, including and especially their game of death, as they test the limits of how long a body can safely stay under. The same god complex Billy Baldwin’s brother proclaimed in Malice takes on frighteningly literal terms here, as the students arrogantly swing back and forth through the veil of eternity. The smartly observed depiction of the med-student lifestyle holds the entire film together; you want to yell at the characters to stop knowingly endangering their own lives, until you realize that they can’t not. They’re addicted to excelling.
This kind of purposeful creative direction hints at what the film’s acolytes know to be gospel: that Schumacher had a reliable road map when he ventured off past the outer limits of human consciousness. This film was made by a man who knew precisely what he was doing, whose success in meeting his own goals was misread as a failure to meet an unwritten list of everyone else’s. Remaking Flatliners by pushing it towards a dull middle ground and away from the weirdo fringes for the sake of broader palatability undermines the factors that made it noteworthy enough to revive in the first place. We’ll have to settle for the most worthy tribute to Flatliners being Bill Hader’s bit from Popstar — a joke clearly written from a place of love, by people who get it.