by Alex Kirschenbaum Aug 10, 2020

Late great visual stylist Joel Schumacher’s death-defying science fiction thriller Flatliners (1990) turns 30 today. It’s a classic, positively Frankenstein-ian examination of ambitious innovators prioritizing their careers in science over their own safety.

Five enterprising Chicago medical students push themselves beyond the normal confines of mortality in a series of “flatlining” experiments, wherein one student at a time lets the others level their heart rate for increasingly more insanely extended durations. These arrogant doctors-in-waiting discover that, upon resuscitation, each of them has brought something back with them: a haunting childhood trauma that, though invisible to anyone else, eventually poses a very tangible physical threat to that particular character’s well-being.

For Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland), that trauma manifests itself as a schoolmate (Joshua Rudoy) he and his friends bullied into a horrific accident. For Rachel Manus (Julia Roberts), it’s her father (Benjamin Mouton), a Vietnam War vet who committed suicide in her youth.

For David Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), it’s Winnie Hicks (Kesha Reed), the kid he himself used to taunt in elementary school. After seeing Nelson wracked with guilt over the reappearing visions of the child he had tormented, David takes action, tracking down the adult Winnie (Kimberly Scott, a frequent Schumacher collaborator) and doing his damnedest to make amends.

Schumacher’s keen eye for talent brought together a fantastic cast of great actors, not just pretty faces, to bring the wild visions of Flatliners to vivid life here. Those stars include frequent Schumacher collaborator Sutherland with Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Billy Baldwin, and most importantly Roberts, one of the most bankable stars of the ensuing decade.

Pretty Woman had already been unleashed upon audiences in March, setting Roberts on her trajectory towards box office and tabloid domination. She is merely a cog within this ensemble piece because it had obviously been filmed prior to Pretty Woman‘s release.

Schumacher always approached his directorial projects with a visual inclination. The movie is as much a triumph of atmosphere and flash as it is an achievement in casting. Photographed by Die Hard (1988) and Basic Instinct (1992) cinematographer Jan de Bont with a charismatically great sweeping flourish, Flatliners moves and breathes like a dream — which fits, since it is littered with several dreamlike metaphysical sequences before devolving into a series of waking nightmares for our beleaguered heroes. There is a bit of a Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) energy to the premise, but Schumacher and his team dress the action up with a Brat Pack respectability and earnestness that never feels inauthentic or fallacious.

Thanks to de Bont and his team, Chicago’s old Loyola University campus is lit through with plenty of evocative smoke and theatrical shades of blue and neon red not seen in nature.

Emphasis is placed on stark, bare production design, wide-open rooms with eerie gothic architecture (there are so many gargoyles). It all lends the movie a certain timeless quality, which fits — the film’s themes were resonant a hundred years before its release, and they remain topical 30 years later.

The film was a solid hit upon its release on August 10th, 1990, topping the box office before finishing with a domestic take of $61.8 million, a number which due to inflation would be doubled today.

One of Schumacher’s greatest attributes as a Hollywood director was that he could not be tethered to any one arena of storytelling, in a bit of a throwback to a bygone era of genre-hopping. After Flatliners (preceded by the soapy coming-of-age drama St. Elmo’s Fire, the immortal The Lost Boys and the atypically lighthearted romance Cousins), he teamed up with Roberts again for the Love Story-esque romantic drama Dying Young (1991), a flawed but typically stylistic adaptation of the John Grisham legal thriller The Client (1993) and to the Michael Douglas white collar freakout thriller Falling Down (1994) before his first foray into the Dark Knight’s comic book adventures.

Schumacher specialized in showcasing troubled people exploring the limits of their capabilities and lives, but he shone brightest when pushing that ethos to the brink with his own stylistic tonal accenting as a filmmaker. Flatliners remains one of his crowning accomplishments.



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