"Flatliners" is a heart-stopping, breathtakingly sumptuous haunted house of a movie that takes off where Dracula and Dante left off and CPR began. Got up in nu-Gothic drag, this goose bump raiser is a metaphysical code blue, a provocative attempt to resuscitate the nation's spiritual dynamism. Like "Ghost," it believes in something greater than "General Hospital."
The film takes place in a university teaching hospital with the look of a medical cathedral. One wing of the spooky facility is being renovated, and it is here that five ambitious medical students carry out their secret experiment. Led by Kiefer Sutherland as the Dr. Jekyll of the '90s, they explore the afterlife by dying for minutes at a time.
The manipulative Sutherland goes first and is revived by his colleagues -- Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt. What Sutherland neglects to tell them is that something has followed him back to this dimension. They soon learn, as mad scientists have through time immemorial, that one doesn't mess with Mr. G. Reaper.
A power struggle develops between Sutherland's selfish visionary and Bacon's caring pragmatist, fueled by their mutual love for Roberts, as a death-obsessed doctor babe. More than the hypotenuse in a love triangle, she is the movie's aching soul. A committed healer driven by some childhood horror, she does not give herself lightly to anyone.
The group become "tragically competitive," as Platt, the cynical scribe, puts it, each one staying longer than the last in the Twilight Zone. Baldwin, a compulsive Romeo who tapes his lovemaking sessions without telling his partners, is the second to cross the flatline. When his heartbeat and brain waves stop, he encounters a Fellini's forest of carnal beauties and clings to his out-of-pajama experience. And so on.
Ranging from vivid to right over the edge, the performances are in keeping with the psychedelic rococo of the scenery and the woo-woo-wooing of the Outerspace Tabernacle Choir. Fans of the vampirical "Lost Boys" will be familiar with director Joel Schumacher's luxuriantly loopy approach. The bloodsucking Peter Pans have become fibrillating death-trippers in this equally cautionary tale.
"Flatliners" marks the debut of screenwriter Peter Filardi, who was inspired by a friend's near-death experience on the operating table. Not the usual fantasy of bright lights and angels' voices, it's an almost childlike look at sinning, a jazzy Sunday school lesson. A peek at the afterlife is a peek into purgatory in Filardi's view.
Movies about dying, grief and life after death are cropping up like corn in the Field of Dreams as a response to on-screen violence, a reaction to AIDS, a desire for something beyond materialism. And we're grateful for their reassurances even when they overreach themselves. Though it's got its excesses, "Flatliners" does brings a certain warmth to the chill of the decade.
Flatliners, at area theaters, is rated R for sexual content.