Release Date(s)1990 (August 2, 2022)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
For whatever reason, the early 1990s saw a small number of films popping up that dealt directly with the afterlife (two of the most notable being Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder). Among them was Flatliners, which was a hit that had the obvious advantage of an all-star cast of established and newly-successful young actors: Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt. Similar to the other supernatural-based films of the era, it had an aggressive visual style—one might say even more so with bolder saturation choices and extravagant set design, thanks to director of photography Jan de Bont and production designer Eugenio Zanetti. The result was a thought-provoking thriller with excellent performances and impeccable visuals.
A group of medical students, led by the troubled but audacious Nelson (Sutherland), take it upon themselves to conduct secret experiments—inducing death on each other in order to discover what lies beyond before being resuscitated. One by one they take a turn on the table, upping the ante by adding minutes every time and experiencing different things while dead, but with a sense of ease when they awaken. The feeling is unfortunately short-lived as they begin confronting the side effect of supernatural phenomenon, all of it closely associated with personal traumas in their lives or flaws within themselves. Nelson is repeatedly assaulted by a young boy in a red hood, David (Bacon) sees visions of a young girl that he bullied as a child, Rachel (Roberts) sees her dead father who committed suicide, and Joe (Baldwin) is haunted by women that he secretly videotaped while having sex with them. As their encounters continue and intensify, particularly for Nelson, it becomes clear that the only way to stop this is by somehow making amends.
What’s unusual about the characters in Flatliners—and this was a critique of the film when it was initially released—is that all of the characters are flawed, some far more than others. But what many failed to see at the time was how crucial this was to the story. You can’t have redemption without having someone who needs to be redeemed in the first place. It’s also interesting that the film doesn’t really make a firm stance on what’s happening when these people die. Is it all in their minds, or is it something more? Questions without answers can be infuriating for those who want everything spelled out for them, but that’s not what this film is about. As Nelson says late in the film, “Everything matters. Everything we do matters.” It’s more about the choices made by these characters in their daily lives, and how these choices affect others. The only drawback of this premise is Julia Roberts’ character, who’s done nothing wrong and simply wants closure. She’s the only one who flatlines that isn’t possessed by inner demons of her own making, meaning that she’s more of an angelic figure within the group. It’s a different flavor of sorts, and it’s certainly distinct from the other characters, but in a way, it makes her more reactionary than participatory.
Regardless, Flatliners is a film that gets better with age because it’s more about the “what if” than the “what is.” Joel Schumacher’s sure-handed direction gives the film a unique quality that the other ghostly-themed films released in that era don’t really have. Critics were a little split on it when it was released, but based upon the strength of the cast and the premise, it did quite well at the box office. It was remade in 2015, which failed upon release, but saw Kiefer Sutherland returning. In a deleted scene from that film, it’s revealed that Sutherland’s character is actually Nelson living under a different name, which would have sequelized the film and made it a tad more interesting. One has to suppose that those in charge of creating that film decided that it would either be confusing or unnecessary for audiences, when actuality, the film itself was.
Flatliners was shot by cinematographer Jan de Bont on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex Platinum cameras and Panavision Primo and E-Series lenses, finished photochemically, and presented primarily in the aspect ratio of 2.39:1 (2.20:1 for 70 mm presentations). Arrow Video’s presentation offers a new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative, which was finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate, approved by Jan de Bont, and graded for high dynamic range (HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available). In the extras, Jan de Bont discusses this new restoration and how the wider contrast options allowed him to improve the look of the film and make it look even better than it did when it was finished photochemically. That is certainly obvious as amazing clarity and contrast have been gained thanks to the HDR, which has also heightened color and shadow detail—deepening blacks without crushing them. Grain is finely-layered, spiking only mildly during some of the more extreme visual moments. Detail is much tighter with a high encode, offering film-like quality. Everything appears clean, sharp, and stable throughout with no obvious flaws. It’s the best presentation of the film available.
Audio is included in English 5.1 and 2.0 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. Both tracks exhibit aggressive qualities when it comes to sound effects and score, but subtleties in the sound design are a bit lacking. Dialogue exchanges are clear and discernible, and low end moments are frequent, although not altogether powerful. There’s frequent panning during certain sequences, and careful placement of certain sounds definitely have impact. This is one film that probably could use a new Atmos mix to improve upon some of its lesser qualities, but taken as a pair, both tracks are very satisfactory.
Flatliners on Ultra HD sits in a black amaray case with a double-sided insert, featuring new artwork by Gary Pullin on one side and the original theatrical artwork on the reverse. Alongside the disc is a 36-page insert booklet containing cast and crew information, the essays Land of the Almost-Dead: Flatliners and a Historical Overview of the Near-Death Experience by Amanda Reyes and “See You Soon”: The Surprising Spirituality of Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners by Peter Tonguette, and restoration details. Everything is housed in a limited slipcover featuring the same new artwork. The following extras are included on the disc:
- Audio Commentary with Bryan Reesman and Max Evry
- The Conquest of our Generation with Peter Filardi (HD – 19:11)
- Visions of Light: Filming Flatliners (HD – 18:23)
- Hereafter with John Kretchmer (HD – 14:22)
- Restoration: The Art and Design of Flatliners (HD – 10:47)
- Atonement: The Music of Flatliners (HD – 11:35)
- Dressing for Character with Susan Becker (HD – 6:26)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 1:27)
- Image Gallery (HD – 12 in all)
The audio commentary features entertainment journalists Bryan Reesman and Max Evry. They consistently discuss the film while watching it together, with Reesman primarily providing real-life factoids about filming locations and the cast and crew, while Evry focuses a little more on the cinematography and the content of the film. There’s overlap, obviously, but they definitely rolled up their sleeves on this one. In The Conquest of our Generation, screenwriter Peter Filardi discusses having the idea and eventually writing the script, the political climate in which the story was written, his inspirations, tapping into a generation, Michael Douglas’s involvement, the film being produced quickly, working with Joel Schumacher, changing the film’s title, being on the set, his feelings seeing the final film, the film’s longevity, Schumacher’s passing, and his excitement for the 4K. In Visions of Light, director of photography Jan de Bont and chief lighting technician Edward Ayer talk about getting involved in the project, working with Schumacher, the style of the film, shooting in Chicago, the importance of lighting, using color and shadow to enhance characters, the importance of operating the camera, and overseeing the 4K restoration. In Hereafter, first assistant director John Kretchmer speaks about getting into the film business, becoming an assistance director, working with Schumacher for the first time on D.C. Cab, his duties on the set, reading the script for the first time, the cinematography and production design, production stories, and the film’s longevity. In Restoration, production designer Eugenio Zanetti and art director Larry Lundy discuss the beginnings of their careers, the stylistic approach to the subject matter, being artistic for the film, the various shooting locations, and their feelings on the final film. In Atonement, composer James Newton Howard and orchestrator Chris Boardman talk about getting into film music, Schumacher wanting Howard based upon Some Girls, trying not to do the same music every time, expressing redemption in the music, working with a choir, the job of an orchestrator, moments in the score that worked for them, and their thoughts on Schumacher. In Dressing for Character, costume designer Susan Becker discusses working with Schumacher on St. Elmo’s Fire, the styles for each character, the color palette, the Halloween bonfire sequence, and the quality of the people on the set. Last is the theatrical trailer and an image gallery, which is limited to 12 promotional photos.
Having not seen Flatliners in many years, I was curious as to just what my reaction to it was going to be. It was on frequent rotation when it first hit home video as seemingly everybody I knew was renting it and watching it, but now years later, one can appreciate it more for its intellectual qualities and visuals, as opposed to just being starry-eyed over its cast. Arrow Video’s 4K UHD presentation is particularly stunning with a nice bevy of bonus materials to go with it, although it’s a shame that Joel Schumacher is no longer with us to comment on it personally. In any case, fans of the film will be pleased, and for them, this is highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons