Summer movies tend to come in three varieties: frenzied action-adventure films featuring vigilante-style super-heroes, frivolous comedies and low-budget horror films where mindless violence is the only source of dramatic tension. Horror movies, especially, seem to sacrifice any genuine suspense on the altar of cheap thrills. Flatliners is different. Although it has its fair share of sharpened scalpels and gratuitous gore, it manages to be a cut above most movies of its kind. Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts, currently involved in an offscreen romance, give impressive performances as two young medical students who briefly stop their hearts so that they can experience the afterlife. But Flatliners does not depend on star appeal alone. Pulsing with genuine chills and thrills, the movie is an imaginative look at the subject of the afterlife.
For Sutherland, the 23-year-old son of Canadian actors Donald Sutherland and Shirley Douglas, Flatliners is only one of three movies currently showcasing his considerable talent. Late last month, Chicago Joe and the Showgirl opened across North America. Based on a true story, it stars Sutherland as an American ser-
viceman in Second World War London who goes on a six-day campaign of violence and murder with a stripper, played by British actress Emily Lloyd. And in the offbeat western Young Guns lí, which opened last week, the actor returns in the role of Josiah (Doc) Scurlock, a frustrated poet and member of a gang of punk cowboys.
Although none of these movies is destined to become a screen classic, Flatliners comes closest to letting Sutherland shine as an actor. While his co-stars Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt also give solid performances, Sutherland clearly emerges as the feature attraction. From the movie’s spooky opening scene, in which medical student Nelson Wright (Sutherland) stands on a windswept pier at dawn, Flatliners clearly belongs to him. “Today is a good day to die,” Wright whispers into the wind—and there is no doubt that he means it.
Bored with learning how to save lives, Wright wants to induce his own temporary death. He has studied the accounts of people who were revived after being declared clinically dead. They all recount how they experienced vivid sensations of warmth and light, and an overall feeling of well-being in that netherworld. Intrigued, Wright enlists the support of four of his fellow students to carry out an
unusual experiment. The procedure involves injecting Wright with drugs, overseeing the cessation of his heartbeat and then quickly reviving him after a few minutes of death. They call it “flatlining,” a reference to the horizontal beam that is left on the screens of electronic heart and brain monitors when a patient dies and the blips stop.
Wright makes a successful round trip to the other side and, during his brief visit, he sees a panic-stricken boy running from a gang of taunting bullies. When his fellow students revive Wright, they are unaware that the victim£ ized boy has also crossed back 2 to the land of the living. Soon, g Wright begins to encounter I the boy in unexpected and u menacing situations. But instead of describing his creepy experiences to his colleagues, Wright tells them that his sojourn has merely enhanced his appreciation of life, making him feel “like a finely tuned instrument.”
Soon, the other students begin taking turns at undergoing the risky procedure. But for them, too, the experiment proves to have dangerous psychic side effects: upon their return from the dead, some of them begin bringing back their own demons, who have been patiently waiting to punish them for their sins. At first angry at Wright for concealing his secret, the students eventually band together to try to vanquish the visions that haunt them.
Those menacing apparitions take on a physical presence, ranging from the young boy, who viciously slashes Wright’s face with a hockey stick, to a series of angry women intent on getting even with the shallow, womanizing Joe Hurley (Baldwin). Roberts, who outshone such established co-stars as Sally Field in the drama Steel Magnolias (1989) and Richard Gere in this year’s comedy Pretty Woman, offers a more restrained but convincing performance as Rachel Mannus, a woman whose long-dead father seems intent on bringing her a mysterious message.
Like almost all movies of its type, Flatlinerd premise is at times shaky. But, although its ruminations about the afterlife are occasionally contrived, the movie elicits enough authentic fear to make up for its sillier moments. And there is a sophisticated look to the film that enhances its otherworldly atmosphere: angels on top of marble columns in the gothically inspired laboratories look down on the students as they experiment with death, and stark lighting shines from beneath an iron-grid floor in the makeshift operating room. Most importantly, Flatliners provides what horror movies always should, but rarely do: a distinct chill up an unsuspecting spine on a hot summer day.
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