Look at them, LOOK AT THEM! That poster is like a singularity of Blue Steel and legendary careers. 1990’s Flatliners is directed by Joel Schumacher, with cinematography from Jan De Bont, foe of all buses. Peter Filardi wrote it who would also write the equally epochal The Craft and the cast are, as you can see, a Who’s Who of their age. It has precisely zero chill aside from the refrigerated blankets they use to help induce Near Death Experience and it has aged either very badly or tremendously well depending on where you stand.
Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland), Rachel (Julia Roberts), Dave Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), Joe (William Baldwin) and Steckle (Oliver Platt) are medical students training in a hospital that looks like it’s been transplanted into the body of a cathedral. Nelson is brilliant, fractured and ruthless. Rachel is determined to do everything she needs to do to be better than these four brilliant idiots who are technically her friends. Joe is a sex drive with vocal chords. Steckle dictates the book he’s writing about their work constantly. Labraccio is a brilliant doctor with ethics almost as good as his hair and absolutely no ability to work inside the rules. They’re a feral D&D group, goblin mode medics looking to go further than anyone else has and prepared to cross any barrier if it impresses Nelson who they all hate and adore in equal measure.
So they die. They render themselves dead for extended periods of time and report on their findings. Until their findings find them. Pursued by unkillable child thugs, their racist past, familial bereavement and Joe’s inability to keep literally anything in his pants in them for long enough to make a cup of coffee, the characters face off against their own worst moments and discover just how little they matter and how vital they are.
Schumacher and De Bont drench Filardi’s script in so much nightmarish gothic aesthetic that you can almost see the Vampire: The Masquerade groups forming in the background. Filardi’s script is alternately very good (Labraccio and Nelson get great plots) and very bad (Rachel is a GIRL. That’s her whole character) and the cast are all excellent. Baldwin was rarely better than he is here, and Platt turns in the first of a decades-long stream of vital turns here as secretly the nicest one of them who isn’t called Dave. There’s a neat meta-fictional element too as these five brilliant young actors play five brilliant young doctors pushing each other to do better and do more.
The heart of the movie is what’s endured though. Fundamentally Filardi’s story is about seeing what you carry with you and either making right or making peace and that has real relevance in the eternal Milkshake Duck hellscape we all pick our way across. All these people are better than they think they are, and all of them are pushed to the edge by the refusal to believe that. It’s an intensely optimistic movie and the dichotomy between that and the aesthetic still feels fresh even now. Watch it and then watch the 2017 remake (Which is actually a sequel) and features Elliot Page and Diego Luna among others. Both are a good time.
Flatliners (1990) has been reissued and is out now