If only its irony were the most painful thing about “Flatliners,” an artless and agonizingly boring remake of a semi-forgotten movie about the dangers of bringing things back from the dead. Lazily recycling the ’90s schlocky Joel Schumacher thriller of the same name (once a staple of video store shelves everywhere), this lifeless new version hits all the same beats as the original, but does so without a speck of the baroque style that made it such a fun thing to rent on a Friday night. At a time when making a movie — any movie — can feel like experimenting with life after death, there’s really no reason to belabor the point.
The story begins in the present day, nine years after Courtney (Ellen Page) accidentally killed her little sister in a car crash. Now an exhausted med student at a prestigious teaching hospital that seems to accept people based on their attractiveness (to the point where a lawsuit seems imminent), Courtney has rededicated herself to saving lives rather than ending them. She’s a good doctor in the making, but maybe a little too interested in talking to patients about their near-death experiences. That interest soon gets the better of her, and she decides to visit the secret underground lab beneath campus (presumably donated by Dr. Frankenstein, who was known for being a very generous alum).
Cocksure rich boy Jamie (James Norton) thinks that Courtney invited him down there to play doctor, not mad scientist, but he doesn’t need much convincing to help his classmate flatline(!) for a minute. Sophia (Kiersey), a girl tormented by the expectations of her overbearing mother, is considerably less enthusiastic, but she’s not just going to let her friend die on the table — or stay dead, anyway.
By the time that Courtney wakes up from her quick visit to the other side, the group has been joined by the hyper-competitive Marlo (Nina Dobrev) and the comparatively responsible Ray (Diego Luna), whose flowing man-bun hides great wisdom. Ben Ripley’s script does virtually nothing to make these beautiful idiots feel like real people, or to differentiate them from the characters in the original, but some of the scenes where they’re all together manage to evoke a certain kind of millennial Darwinism. These kids are literally dying to succeed. While “Flatliners” is largely disinterested in acknowledging how the world has changed during the 27 years since this story was first told, the recklessness of start-up culture sometimes creeps its way into the film as if by mistake.
Likewise, it’s tempting to make something of the fact that the two non-white characters are the least entitled and most level-headed, but the storytelling is so egregiously haphazard that even the most intriguing details feel more like happy accidents than they do actual choices. Also, just to be clear: Ray and Sophia are still super dumb — just marginally less so than their friends. Nobody in this team of future doctors ever bothers to question why Courtney has a photographic memory after she comes back from the dead, or why Marlo can steer a car like Baby Driver once she goes under. On the contrary, they’re so happy for these advantages that they just start raging after every successful resurrection, baking and humping and otherwise behaving like every trip to purgatory comes with a free line of coke.
That’s when the consequences start to crop up (“How come you didn’t tell us there would be any downside to flatlining!” Sophia incredulously shouts after learning that depriving oxygen to her brain for two minutes might not be the incredible cure-all that it sounds like). Side effects may include: A handful of half-assed jump-scares, super obvious symbols of buried guilt, incontrovertible evidence that director Niels Arden Oplev has seen “The Grudge” at least once, and damning proof that an incongruously high-profile cast still can’t save a grimy studio movie from feeling like generic trash.
“Flatliners” was always uncomfortably wedged somewhere between horror and psychological drama, but Schumacher generated enough mood to imbue his film with the illusion of its own identity. Oplev… not so much. His version is light on scares and light on substance, and none of the setpieces he creates are compelling enough to distract from how dull it is to watch each character experience the same sequence of events (the plotting is so plodding that a full 90 minutes pass before these kids even start to address the central conflict and wonder how they might rid themselves of the nightmarish visions they’ve incurred).
It’s fitting, then, that this version is vaguely hedged between a remake and a sequel, repeating the events of the 1990 movie, but also throwing in original cast member Kiefer Sutherland just to have it both ways. Confusingly playing a different character than he did the first time, Sutherland shows up as the czar of the hospital’s teaching program, evoking Dr. House all the way down to his cane (the inspiration for his giant gray wig remains a mystery). It’s as though Screen Gems knew that even the faintest hint of name recognition could help sell a few tickets, but couldn’t quite convince themselves that anyone actually cared about the brand they’re bringing back from the dead.
It’s possible that the city of Toronto was similarly bashful about its involvement, as Oplev shoots the movie with so little sense of place that it feels like he’s been ordered to strip-mine every location of its personality. Weighing this sterile and under-lit “Flatliners” against the atmospheric 1990 version provides a sad case study in how boring our bad movies have become.
Once upon a time, Hollywood used to cook their crap with at least a modicum of care; now, its hit-and-run horror movies are just kind of insulting. The movie builds to the realization that asking people for forgiveness is a lot easier than forgiving yourself, but it’s hard to imagine anyone offering audiences an apology for this debacle. It’s even harder to imagine those audiences accepting one.
“Flatliners” is now playing in theaters.