Let’s get the lie at the center of “Flatliners” out of the way first. This 2017 film, billed as a sequel, is just a remake of the 1990 film of the same name. Despite comments director Niels Arden Oplev (“Speed Walking”) has made and the casting of Kiefer Sutherland (“Designated Survivor”), who starred in the original, “Flatliners” does little more than copy the original’s story nearly scene for scene, occasionally even line for line. What little novelty there might have been in expanding the original’s ideas is almost completely drowned out by a story that seems to go out of its way to be a boilerplate imitation of an already mediocre film.
For those unfamiliar with the original, “Flatliners” tells the story of a group of medical students who — in a series of attempts to probe the afterlife — kill themselves temporarily and have their colleagues resuscitate them after an allotted time has passed. Once they’re back in the world of the living, they begin to experience hallucinations that seem to imply some part of the afterlife isn’t done with them yet.
Ultimately, this remake’s biggest problem is the same one that plagued the original: The central conceit is too good for the movie that follows. There is limitless storytelling opportunity to the idea of scientists proving the existence of an afterlife, but neither the original nor the remake go anywhere particularly special with it. There are a few nebulous definitions thrown out (“It was like pure energy,” “It was kind of sexual”) and an attempt to tie into a greater story about redemption, but everything about the afterlife and its nature and capabilities is so poorly defined that it’s impossible for any stakes to develop.
That means that when it comes to the horror, it’s hard to be all that scared because it hasn’t been established what audience members are supposed to be scared of. In “The Conjuring,” we’re scared of the Bathsheba’s hold over the Perron family. In “It,” we’re scared of Pennywise and the other forms It takes and the way it feeds off peoples’ fear. In “Flatliners,” we’re just scared of the next inevitable blast of loud noise. Oplev, who directed the excellent “Mr. Robot” pilot, wrangles some atmosphere into a few scenes, but for most of the runtime, the script seems to be actively working against him.
To the movie’s credit, it tries to set up characters with unique problems and personalities. There is an effort made to base the story around the characters’ struggles. One character in particular is given an interesting arc with a shocking ending, and it’s no coincidence that this storyline represents the biggest departure from the original. The cast does their best, and while results vary — Diego Luna (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) suffers through some of the worst dialogue of the year — it’s hard to say that anyone is outright bad.
It’s not as if the original “Flatliners” was a great movie, or even a good one. It’s tediously slow, features effects and scares that have aged incredibly poorly and is mostly notable for its cast and being directed by a pre-“Batman and Robin” Joel Schumacher. Still, it’s hard not to be disappointed at having to watch this remake take the same ingenious idea and waste it in many of the same ways. A good cast and a few moments of atmosphere can’t overcome the slavish devotion to the source material without even an attempt at reconciling that movie’s flaws.