WHY DID the medical student cross the line between life and death?To see what's on the Other Side.
Sorry, but that's the basic premise of "Flatliners," a Brat Pack neo-Gothic that plays like "Frankenstein" in reverse: Intense medical students take turns losing their lives and bringing each other back from the dead for near-death experience kicks. "Flatliners" refers to the straight line on an EKG indicating clinical death. (A former med student tells me his classmates jokingly called a near-death experience "doing a U-turn at the white light.")
Kiefer Sutherland dreams up the strictly secret scheme -- he's less interested in science than in making "60 Minutes." When he comes back from his exhilarating death trip -- his jaunt through the afterlife looks like "To Fly" at the Air and Space Museum -- his initially reluctant pals jockey for who gets to meet the Reaper next, and who can stay dead longer. Death seems to be a cheap form of psychoanalysis, as each voyager encounters someone they've wronged earlier in life.
Once revived, the five Flatliners seem to have a foot in both worlds, as their postmortem visions start showing up in waking life. This is uncomfortable to say the least, particularly for Sutherland, who tends to get beat up pretty badly by his personal demon. You know it's the '90s when your thriller comes complete with a sermon. "Flatliners" is a New Age "Nightmare on Elm Street," with anti-drug propaganda and heavy-handed messages about atonement and reconciliation.
When you want a maverick who's idealistic yet unimpeachably cool, you cast Kevin Bacon; you get Kiefer Sutherland when you want an untrustworthy maverick with a touch of vulnerability. Julia Roberts signed to do "Flatliners" before she became a Name, and though she's underused, she brings a serene restraint to her role. Although William Baldwin looks likely to join his brother Alec in the beefcake big leagues, his "Flatliners" part is just an excuse for a Lowe blow -- he plays a cad who videotapes unsuspecting bed partners. The Orson Welles-ish Oliver Platt is used for comic relief.
Director James Schumacher leans heavily on James Newton-Howard's sawing/scraping/thudding score, garish funhouse lighting, and a spookily atmospheric hospital set -- night and day, it resembles a cobwebbed, candlelit former cathedral, littered with monumental broken sculptures of the gods and a portrait of Prometheus caught in the act of stealing fire. (In case you miss the point, don't mess around on the gods' turf.) Schumacher also capitalizes whenever possible on the med-school ambiance, offering anatomy classes with casual cut-ups over grisly cadavers, and brandishing a big hypodermic whenever he wants a cheap visceral jolt -- "Flatliners" does for needles what "Arachnophobia" does for spiders.