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Film / Flatliners

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Is there a pulse...? Or a point?

Flatliners is a 1990 movie directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt as medical students experimenting with near-death experiences. In the course of their experiments, they accidentally bring back the ghosts of their past, in the form of vengeful entities that torment them, forcing them to confront their past mistakes and try to figure out a way to send them back where they belong.

A remake was released in September 2017, starring Elliot Page and featuring Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton, Kiersey Clemons and Beau Mirchoff.

This film contains examples of:

  • Arc Words: Nelson: "Today is a good day to die."
    • Labraccio: "Hoka hey!"
    • Rachel: "See you soon."
  • The Atoner: What the protagonists are all forced to become, once they find out what the spirits actually are. It's their guilt over their past sins. The only way to stop being haunted is to move on.
  • Byronic Hero: Nelson is a handsome, brilliant, ambitious man driven to discard medical ethics in pursuit of scientific and philosophical discovery (and, more than a little, personal glory). That much of the story takes place (for some reason) in a church being renovated, resulting in tons of Gothic imagery, ramps it up even further.
  • The Casanova: Joe beds a lot of women. He also secretly video-records them while he has sex with them.
  • Cassette Craze: Randy Steckle is constantly talking into his tape recorder, taking verbal note on the experiments and such.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: When the guys are rushing to stop Nelson from trying to commit suicide Steckle remarks how his worst sin was robbing a sandwich from his babysitter.
  • Clean Pretty Reliable: Largely averted in the remake. While no ribs are broken, and no-one vomits, the subjects are clearly in shock afterwards and even with multiple medical students on hand with proper equipment, it takes time, and they frequently find themselves having to escalate the resuscitation as the steps fail to provide a heartbeat. Proper straight arms are also used during the compressions.
  • Color Motif: Lighting is a significant predictor of what will happen in a scene. A deep orange color is usually a sign of promise and positivity, while blue usually means something bad will happen.
  • Creepy Child: Billy Mahoney's spirit is deeply malevolent and antagonistic towards Nelson, often attacking and injuring him.
  • Decoy Protagonist: In the remake, Courtney, Elliot Page's character, receives the most focus in the trailers for the movie. She is the only character to die, and dies about halfway through the plot. Marlo is ultimately the one who is the focus of the climax.
  • Driven to Suicide: Facing the possibility of being tormented by Billy for the rest of his days without reprieve, and that the only way to really resolve things with Billy ("Atonement") is to face him in the afterlife, Nelson decides to kill himself.
  • Flawless Token: While all the men in the group have to deal with the various people they hurt in their lives, the one female in the group's only sin is having a father who committed suicide when she was a child, through no fault of her own. In the original script, her sin was an affair with a college professor, which she framed as sexual assault when she got caught. The storyline was changed so as not to reflect badly on the reputation of "nice girl" actress Julia Roberts.
  • Foreshadowing: Before Rachel goes through her near death experience, she sees a picture of her father in her room. During her near death experience she remembers her father's suicide.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: In the remake, it turns out what Jamie did is abandon his pregnant girlfriend rather than going with her to get an abortion. When he later goes to ask her for forgiveness, it turns out she didn't go through with having an abortion (possibly because of him abandoning her) and they have a son that Jamie never knew about.
  • Groin Attack: When Nelson first meets the ghost of Billy Mahoney, Billy starts off the encounter by kicking Nelson in the nads.
  • Guilt Complex: The movie gives the first impression that the characters are being haunted by vengeful ghosts, only to reveal that it's their guilt over their past sins that is driving them to see hallucinations. The "hauntings" stop when the characters finally own up to their past misdeeds.
  • How Dare You Die on Me!: While David Labraccio (Kevin Bacon) is trying to resuscitate Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland) at the end of the movie.
  • Ironic Hell: Implied, and in a manner of speaking. When you die, you go to your own afterlife where you are tormented by the people you wronged (or believe you have wronged) when you were alive. The metaphorical and possibly literal demons of the protagonists' pasts follow them back into life. Making peace with the people you wronged can stop this. In Nelson's case, this is a big problem because Mahoney is dead and there's no way he can reach him to make peace except...
  • Magical Defibrillator: In Real Life, it is not possible to defibrillate someone who is flatlined back to life, let alone someone who has been clinically dead for twelve minutes. We won't talk about brain damage, eithernote .
    • The remake addresses this with them first getting a heartbeat before administering the shock. The time limit is also addressed, except for the final resuscitation, and part of the procedure is cooling the body during the flatline to prolong the amount of time without damage.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Are our heroes persecuted by honest-to-hell demons, or just by their inner demons? Do they see real ghosts or do they just hallucinate (because of brain damages) due to deep-seated guilt and trauma? There is no way to know.
  • Military Brat: Rachel's father was a war veteran, presumably of Vietnam. He returned a heroin addict and killed himself out of shame when she discovered his addiction.
  • Mirror Scare: Rachel (Julia Roberts) looks in a mirror and sees the ghost of her dead father in the room behind her.
  • Near-Death Experience: In a nutshell, the protagonists are trying to inflict this on themselves on purpose in hopes of glimpsing the afterlife and recording it.
  • Nipple and Dimed: Averted, surprisingly. The Abyss did this with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and it was PG-13. Flatliners is already rated R, and even has a sex scene in it! But Julia Roberts has a bra on during her resuscitation scene.
  • Only Sane Man: Although he's willing to monitor the others while they're under, Randy himself is a reluctant participant in the experiment, frequently points out how crazy the whole thing is and is the only one who doesn't himself 'flatline'.
  • Professor Guinea Pig: The crux of the plot is the students experimenting on themselves after interviews with patients and their experiences.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: When it looks like Nelson is gone for good, David says, "I'm sorry, God. I'm sorry we stepped on your fucking territory! Isn't that enough?!"
  • Rule of Symbolism: The main characters take their classes and, later, perform their experiment inside a gothic cathedral right out of Hieronymus Bosch. Don't ask why, they just do.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Before Labraccio goes through the death process, he says to Nelson "Don't let go of the rope." This is a reference to Poltergeist (1982). When Diane Freeling, who is tied to a rope, is about to be sent into the dimension where her daughter Carol Anne was taken, she tells her husband Steven "Don't let go (of the rope)".
    • Kiefer Sutherland being pursued by a creepy figure with a red hood might be a reference to a certain movie featuring his dad.
  • Trashcan Bonfire: After being deserted by Nelson at the cemetery, Steckle and Hurley warm themselves near a burning barrel before being picked up by David Labraccio.
  • Unnaturally Blue Lighting: This is used whenever something ominous is about to happen.
  • Urban Hellscape: We see glimpses of this, particularly when Nelson wanders through alleys filled with homeless people and criminals and with nightmarish graffiti on the walls.