Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland), a Chicago medical student, walks out into the dawn and watches the sun rise, then proclaims to nobody in particular "Today is a good day to die!" What he has planned along with four other fellow students is an experiment on the experience of life after death; Rachel (Julia Roberts) has been interviewing people who believe they saw something while clinically dead and before they were revived, something that science cannot ordinarily explain, and this intrigues the five young doctors, with Nelson as their leader. Therefore tonight, they will gather in a large room on the campus grounds which is being renovated and induce a state of death before reviving Nelson, then take notes on what he has witnessed...
For some reason, around the year 1990 the idea of what happens after you die was very much in the air as far as pop culture was concerned, maybe it had been all those horror movies bumping characters off during the eighties, but it was as if a conscience had been pricked and the creative types were musing over their own mortality in a way that the finality of simply dropping dead (or being made to drop dead) was not going to address. It was something akin to the fantasy movies of the forties where the afterlife was a frequent source of interest, though back then they had the excuse of the Second World War to explain their obsessions, with this turn of events it was simply morbidity.
Popular morbidity (hey, there’s an idea for a magazine), that was, as if the Goth movement was starting to inform the fictional media of the day with its preoccupations with passing on and all the accoutrements of that in the land of the living. But not every filmmaker was a Tim Burton, and so it was that we had rather less committed takes on the subject, as here from director Joel Schumacher, who essentially made St. Elmo's Fire: The Near Dear Experiences with its slightly younger version of the Brat Pack (aside from Kevin Bacon, who might have been admitted to that hallowed circle if he'd starred in the right movies). He did have the advantage of casting one genuine megastar in his ensemble who was in one of the most popular films of the nineties the same year.
She was the Pretty Woman herself Julia Roberts, and she was the sole female member of the Flatliners club, which meant she got to keep her bra on when the defibrillator paddles were jolting her back to life, all very tasteful. As for the others, Oliver Platt didn’t undergo the experiment, preferring to make flippant comments about grave situations that were actually very serious statements about how dangerous this was, in a very Platt-esque manner that he would hone to perfection over the rest of his career, William Baldwin was the womaniser who owned the camera they would record the experiments on (when he wasn't secretly filming himself having sex), and Bacon was the maverick who had nearly been thrown out of the university for his, er, maverick behaviour. Then we had Sutherland, whose Nelson suffered the most.
The drawback to the NDEs was that you would not necessarily return from them alone, so whatever it could dredge up from your past, some bad behaviour of some description, would appear to you in visions to haunt you. If you had been a bully at some point, your victim would show up to torment you, for example, which happened to both Nelson and Bacon's David, though one handles it better than the other when Nelson's ghost is distinctly more violent than David's. Nelson did a terrible thing when he was a kid, he victimised a classmate to their death, and as if that wasn’t vile enough he caused the demise of his pet dog in the act - gasp! Boo, hiss! And yet, while Flatliners aimed for big emotions, guilt, forgiveness, that sort of thing, it came across as a storm in a teacup when you saw hardly anyone else involved with the experiments, either casually or hands on, leaving a feeling of anti-climax that set in far too early. For a horror movie, unless you could relate to having committed a dreadful deed in your life, it wasn't really all that resonant, and even if you had, there was something cheap about the lightweight way this capitalised on that remorse. Music by James Newton Howard.
American director and occasional writer who rather unfairly won a reputation as one of the worst in Hollywood when he was really only as good as the material he was given. Starting as a costume designer (working with Woody Allen), he went onto a couple of TV movies - screenwriting Car Wash, Sparkle and The Wiz between them - and then a feature, spoof The Incredible Shrinking Woman. D.C. Cab followed, then a couple of eighties-defining teen hits, St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys, and remake Cousins.
In the nineties, he was offered higher profile movies, including supernatural Flatliners, cult urban nightmare Falling Down, John Grisham adaptations The Client and A Time To Kill, blockbusting camp Batman Forever and the much-maligned Batman & Robin, and grotty 8MM. 1999's Flawless signalled a change to smaller scale works: army drama Tigerland, true life tale Veronica Guerin and thriller Phone Booth. Lavish musical The Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Lloyd Webber was a Lost Boys fan) was a return to the overblown blockbusters, but it flopped, as did his conspiracy thriller The Number 23.