Flatliners (1990)

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Flatliners (1990) Movie Poster Image
'90s thriller about near-death experiences is very violent.
  • R
  • 1990
  • 114 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

While the importance of atonement and forgiving oneself is shown and discussed, this only happens when the characters undergo near-death experiences undertaken with the motivation of becoming famous.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Nelson spearheads the near-death experiments primarily for purposes of ego and fame. Joe keeps a video camera hidden above his bed so he can film the women he's having sex with. The other characters are jaded, cold, and cynical. 

Violence

A young boy appears and attacks the lead character in several scenes. He kicks the lead character in the crotch, then hits and kicks him repeatedly to the point where the character must administer stitches to his own face. The young boy later attacks the lead character with a hockey stick, and even later with a pickax. It's shown in a flashback that when the lead character was a young boy, he accidentally killed the boy while bullying and taunting him, throwing a rock at his head and causing him to fall off a tree to his death. A young girl witnesses her father commit suicide with a gun. While the suicide itself isn't shown, his dead body holding the gun is shown, with blood splattered around the bullet hole of the windshield.

Sex

Brief nudity -- female breasts. A man and woman have sex in a bedroom; the man keeps a video camera hidden above his bed and films himself having sex with various women. There is frequent mention of his promiscuity. As a result of his near-death experience, the women this man has slept with appear to him on TV, video camera, and EKG screens, and they later confront him seemingly in person as they throw his pickup lines back at him. 

Language

Frequent profanity, including regular use of "f--k" and its variations; "s--t," "p---y," "balls," "prick," "hell." After one of the character's near-death experiences, he is confronted by a little girl he bullied as a young boy; she goes on a tirade of name-calling peppered with frequent profanity. 

Consumerism

One of the character purchases a six-pack of Miller Lite. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A man cooks heroin on a spoon and shoots it up. Beer drinking. Cigarette smoking. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Flatliners is a 1990 thriller in which Kiefer Sutherland leads a group of fellow ambitious medical students who discover a method to have near-death experiences, live to tell the tale, and experience the difficult aftermath. There's frequent violence, particularly revolving around a young boy who appears very eager to punch, kick, stab with a pickax, and smack with a hockey stick one of the lead characters; this same boy is shown falling to his death at the hands of bullies. A young girl witnesses her father cook, then shoot heroin before going into his pickup truck to take his own life with a gun. Another character keeps a video camera hidden above his bed so he can film the women he has sex with. Brief nudity includes female breasts. A man and woman have sex in a bedroom. There's frequent profanity -- ample use of "f--k" and its variations and a litany of curse words from a little girl confronting a character who bullied her when they were both young. 

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What's the story?

In FLATLINERS, Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland) is a hyperambitious medical student who believes he's discovered a way people can have near-death experiences, get a taste of the afterlife, and come back to life without suffering brain damage. He enlists the help of some of his fellow med students (played by Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt) to help in his experiments. While they're wary, their ambition outweighs their skepticism, and at an abandoned museum, they plug in their medical equipment and help Nelson "die" and then come back to life. When Nelson returns, he is clearly changed but unable to fully comprehend the experience. The experiment takes an ugly turn when Nelson is visited by a young boy determined to physically attack him. Nelson does not tell his colleagues about the young boy until two more of the group -- David (Bacon) and Joe (Baldwin) -- explore their own afterlives and are forced to confront their own indiscretions. However, unlike the others, Rachel (Roberts) has a slightly different experience, but what they all realize is that to save themselves from what they have wrought, they must find a way to either atone for what they've done or find a way to let go, find peace, and move on. 

Is it any good?

The timeless themes outweigh the dated style of Flatliners. In other words, while it's very much a movie rooted in 1990 in terms of noir attitude and questionable hair and eyewear choices, the desire to find the meaning in life and death, and how our sins and unresolved issues might come back to haunt us in the afterlife, remain as relevant as ever. Rather than seeing the afterlife as the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel," Flatliners explores the idea of the afterlife as atonement, a place where those we wronged get even. It walks a treacherous path as it explores this idea -- only one of the characters suffers the consequences for the conscious misdeeds of his young adulthood. The others are confronted by those they hurt when they were too young to know any better. There just wasn't enough time to explore the nuances of the debate in a feature-length film, but Flatliners certainly tries. 

Some of the movie seems forced or gratuitous; Oliver Platt's character seems to only be there to freak out at the appropriately dramatic times, and Julia Roberts' character only seems to be there because they needed a woman to interact with the other four dudes, and she's considered "cold" because she won't sleep with them. Be that as it may, an unwieldy, potentially hydra-headed theme finds a manageable form through these characters' transgressions and unpleasant memories and provides a unique take on life after death.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Flatliners explores themes of life and death, atonement, and making peace with difficult moments from one's past. What does the movie say about these topics, and how does it express these ideas? 

  • How realistically do you think the movie conveyed the stresses and intense competition of medical school? 

  • Was the violence necessary to drive home the points of the movie, or did it feel forced to add excitement to the story? 

Movie details

For kids who love dramas and thrillers

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