Which version of Flatliners do you prefer, 1990 or 2017?

The 1990 film Flatliners is superior in many ways to the 2017 remake.

1990 Flatliners remains one of the best showcases for Joel Shoemaker’s considerable filmmaking talents. The cinematography is multilayered and evocative, even when not so in-your-face.

The film makes no secret of the fact that the students are treading on God’s turf. But even having been a fan of this film for many years, I only recently noticed this imagery, from the very first scene:

Kevin Bacon’s Labraccio comes upon a patient being pushed down a hallway… a dark tunnel.. toward a bright light. He intercepts the patient, pulling her backward and into a side room, where (in the absence of a qualified doctor) he performs a rushed, emergency surgery and saves the patient’s life.

The visual symbolism of this glimpse “down the tunnel” was lost on me for years.

Each of the characters that “goes under” is subject to judgement according to the worst things they did earlier in life (with the exception of Rachel, who has been judging herself for years for something she was not actually responsible for). In each case, the character is forced to confront the truth of what they’ve done, a truth they’ve been running from ever since childhood, and in doing so, develop and grow as a person.

However the way the movie treats this reckoning is different, and in my opinion, the 2017 film is much weaker. In the 2017 film, the character of Courtney is plagued by visions of her deceased little sister Tessa, who harbors a grudge because Courtney, however unintentionally, was responsible for her death.

But Tessa isn’t there to forgive her. It doesn’t matter how much Courtney loved her, how much she grieved, or how she went into medical school to try to atone for her mistake and save other lives. Tessa’s there to exact mindless revenge, and succeeds. There is no character development for Courtney, no lesson learned, except “don’t text while driving” I guess. Weak.

The other characters figure out that they have to atone for past transgressions, particularly the character of Marlo. The ghost of her victim offered no forgiveness and the vortex of eternal damnation would certainly have consumed her had she not absolved herself of her own sin.

She is visited in her flatline vision by Courtney, who imparts this little get-out-of-hell-free card to her.

Marlo does not earn this knowledge on her own, she has to be told. It’s implied that Courtney could have escaped Tessa’s wrath had she forgiven herself before Tessa came for her. Takeaway: whatever wrong you’ve done, whatever harm you’ve caused, whomever you’re wronged or how grievously, just forgive yourself and all will be made right with your soul.

But in the 1990 film, the characters absolution can only come from the ones they’ve wronged. In Hurley’s case, he loses his fiancée, the woman he loves. His debt is paid. In Labraccio’s case, he tracks down the girl he taunted and bullied as a child, now an adult, who accepts his apology and forgives him. His debt is paid. In Rachel’s case, she faces the ghost of her father, who shows her that the sin she committed wasn’t hers at all, and he is in fact seeking her forgiveness—a touching twist. In Nelson’s case, he gives the ultimate amends by flatlining himself and offering his life to the ghost of his victim. The ghost accepts his offering, and allows him to be resuscitated by Labraccio and crew.

Personally I think the film would have ended better had Nelson died on the table, while his soul was allowed to leave that dark, purgatorial meadow and ascend into the light. His sin was the only one resulting in a death, and his sacrifice would have had greater dramatic significance about the dangers of “playing with” death. The message would have been more powerful that way. But that ending probably tested badly.

The two films’ messages presented are different. The 2017 film seems to be saying, “admit your mistakes and forgive yourself” whereas the 1990 film is more about “admit your mistakes and take responsibility for them,” which in this Gen-Xer’s opinion, is the more meaningful takeaway.

This is a minor point, but it further illustrates the superficiality of the 2017 film. They change things up a bit by putting the flatliners into an MRI during the experiment. I thought this was a cool addition and would maybe add to the story in an original way.

But it didn’t. They looked at the images and said “ooh cool!” and that was the extent of the MRI’s consequence. Furthermore, look at the above image closely… see anything out of place?

Why is there a laptop computer, made of aluminum, in the room? Do the filmmakers not know how an MRI works? At least the screenwriter does, since Courtney has a line of dialogue saying “no keys or metal in the room” but that room is full of metal objects such as stands, fixtures on the walls, the characters use their phones, and so forth. Actual MRI rooms look like this:

But that would have been visually boring, so the filmmakers went for style over substance. Which in my opinion best encapsulates the 2017 film, and might explain in part why it currently has a 4% “Tomatometer” score.