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Film review: Flatliners

Published: Monday, Aug. 13 1990 12:00 a.m. MDT

File "Flatliners" under guilty pleasures.

Though it is ridiculous in the extreme, this is a movie that is so well-directed, so sincerely acted and so emotionally manipulative that it's impossible not to like. Though you may kick yourself somewhat afterward.

In a way "Flatliners" is merely a combination of the best elements of other movies, most prominently "Frankenstein," "Brainstorm" and "Field of Dreams."

The loopy storyline has four Chicago med students — played by Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt — reluctantly joining Kiefer Sutherland as he attempts to force-feed himself an afterlife out-of-body experience. His idea is to stop his vital signs, or "flatline" (referring to the line on EKG and EEG monitors that straightens out when a person dies). Then, after a minute or two of death, to be revived — to, as it were, live to tell about it.

"Philosophy failed, religion failed — now it's up to us," Sutherland intones ominously as he prepares to find out for himself what lies on the other side.

This is accomplished in an abandoned lab used late at night with so many gothic overtones that Frankenstein himself would feel at home. Despite moments of panic along the way, the experiment goes smoothly.

But Sutherland's brief crossover into death leaves him weak and apparently hallucinative as he finds himself haunted by a vision from his past.

He neglects to disclose to his colleagues what is happening, however, so it isn't long before the others, despite their initial reluctance, begin bidding for their right to follow in Sutherland's footsteps.

It is to director Joel Schumacher's credit that though there are five death-induced experiments, which could have gotten rather redundant, each is treated like a whole new experience, filled with tension that builds as the subject is drawn toward death and the others try to pull him out of it.

The five main actors are all fabulous, working in ensemble fashion but creating unique, complex individuals — Sutherland, the bold, single-minded scientist; Roberts, hiding something and obsessed with death; Bacon, the undisciplined atheist; Baldwin, the insensitive womanizer; and Platt, the wisecracking skeptic.

Each actor is given scenes in which to shine, and all work very well together as a team.

The visual look of the film is quite startling, with loads of yellow, especially indoors, and dreamy out-of-body sequences that parallel the induced-dream scenes from "Brainstorm." There is a fluid motion to the camera work, but it's never distracting. And the Halloween backdrop adds an eerie feeling, helping work up suspense.

With its uneasy blend of several motifs — horror, thriller, love story, morality tale — "Flatliners" sometimes works in spite of itself. But it is splendidly directed by Schumacher ("Cousins," "The Lost Boys"), and first-time screenwriter Peter Filardi provides a screwloose script loaded with clever dialogue and bizarre situations.

It is rated R for violence, profanity, sex and nudity.

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