The Modern Mythological Quest: A Look Back at ‘Flatliners’

Are you there God? It’s me, Nelson. I’m mostly dead now. What did it all mean! What was it all for?
Flatliners College
By  · Published on September 26th, 2017

Flatliners is the story of Nelson Wright (Keifer Sutherland) and his imperative declaration of interest in what is beyond life and death. Philosophy and religion have failed him. He can’t touch or see their so-called truths with his bare hands. The philosophers give you an instruction manual for finding a truth, but no tangible anything. Religion gives you an answer key, but still nothing you can push around. In a devastating act of hubris, he uses his medical training to make the exploration of death tangible. Let’s make it real, he says. Let’s fucking touch Death. In every meaningful way, Flatliners is a modern mythological quest.

It’s interesting for a host of reasons. It really is a nice, simple little idea. Want to know the answers to life, death, and what it all means? Just kill yourself. Only a little, though. The idea that he can play with death, con the master existence and non-existence into granting him a peek behind the veil is positively a mythological quest. What if we kill ourselves a little? Will we learn more than the old generation ever taught us? He wants his answers now. Not later. Sometimes you just have to get up and do it. Sometimes you just have to get up and die. But, what’s the point if you can’t come back? That’s the mythological aspect right there.

Wright gathers himself a team of like-minded, skilled brash young doctors. Who, for one glorious reason or another, all feel the pull of cheating death. They’re all self-involved, narcissists and judgemental pricks bred for ruthless one-up-manship and winner-takes-all competition. It’s hard to be invested in a gang of inveterate assholes. It makes it a tad hard to stay invested in the fate of the characters when none of them are particularly redeeming. Fortunately, a likable character isn’t a requirement for a myth. It does make you appreciate the brutal lessons they learn through their flirtation with death.

At the start of their journey to the other side, they experience something akin to their version of the Elysian Fields, the resting place of heroes and virtuous souls. Wright experiences something more literally field like. His first vision is one of joy and streamers and children’s open heartful laughter as they run through the wheat-filled plains with his boyhood dog. Maybe it is Heaven? Joe Hurley (William Baldwin), seasoned scumbag who enjoys cheating on his fiancee and filming it, experiences it as an array of sensual breasts. Imagine showing up to Heaven and wondering where all the boobs are. This is clearly not the resting place of the virtuous.

Rachel Manus (Julia Roberts) comes across as the kind one, but she is as desperate for relief from her burden as the others. Is she Electra, reinvented, seeking justice for a murdered father? Do their pasts represent different types of common sins? Hurley is a liar and preys on the trust others place in him. Wright is ego driven to the point of literally killing himself as the supreme act of confidence. Dave Labraccio (Kevin Bacon) wants to save people, but his past is full of casually destructive malice. Touching death changes you.

After they return, they begin to experience darker visions. Maybe that romp through the field wasn’t so joyful. Maybe those women aren’t pleased with being treated as sex objects. They’ve pierced the veil and found themselves confronting their own sins. Or, as it turns out, they’ve found their sins given form and the ability to confront them. They are no longer given the option to ignore these things. Despite having names and backstories, the way they’re staged and presented makes them feel like archetypes as they experience this.

It is a great idea, but it isn’t exactly original. Since the beginning, we’ve been trying to answer these questions. Life and death. What’s it all about? That’s what we do. This idea is wholly ingrained in our storytelling since we started telling stories. Whether it’s a mythological quest or The Matrix.

Persephone was abducted by Hades and had to be rescued from the Underworld by Hecate. Or, the story of Orpheus seeking to break his wife out the underworld clink. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a story that is something like 4,000 years old, has the idea of journeying to and from the underworld interwoven into it. Oh, to conquer death and know no equal. Gilgamesh learned that the world doesn’t tolerate that for long.

To know something is to dominate it. In these myths, we literalize our characters’ attempts to dominate life through their pursuit of knowledge of the afterlife. The impermanence of life conjures primal fears which require Heroes to vanquish. The story tracks along with a sort of Heroes Journey, or perhaps a classic Greek play about hubris and the role of death.

Hades told Orpheus not to look at his wife before they both exited hell. If he did, she’d never be allowed to leave. That’s a core idea in a lot of the mythology. You can’t look at the afterlife. And, if you do, there are consequences. Why is there a consequence for that? And what do we take away from that? Those are interesting philosophical, storytelling ideas.

I can’t think of a movie that comes before Flatliners that uses that approach. The way that they bring this journey into the afterlife to the screen is totally captivating. Full credit to the team up of Joel Schumacher (Director), Jan De Bont (Director of Photography), and Eugenio Zanetti (Production Design). I may not have given much of a shit what happened to the characters but hot damn. I could not stop talking about the set design and the lighting. There is a beautiful color palette that they work with through the whole movie. As a result of their teamwork, this vision bleeds through every aspect of the visual experience in Flatliners. Most of it is totally nuts and eminently stageable.

For example, where the fuck is this movie set? I’ve never seen a medical school like this. It looks like a museum, or maybe some kind of old gothic cathedral. I’m not even talking about just where they sneak off to do their experiments. I’m talking about even when they’re doing their medical school duties. There are long narrow hallways with small adjoining rooms, almost like dorm rooms. But, one of the dorm rooms is an operating theater? Then it hit me. They’re staging this show almost like it’s a Greek Drama.

The design emphasizes the idea that they’re telling a classic story with a modern bent. It’s essential to reinforcing their whole approach to the film. Their settings are not literal. The only scene that feels very, uh, movie-movie to me is when Labraccio heads out to atone for his sins. Everything else feels like a Broadway set. It would be an extraordinarily expensive staging, but it has that feel to me.

The room where they dissect cadavers really stands out. You would expect a room like that, if you saw it today in a medical drama, to be full of steels, whites, and greys with harsh white lights illuminating every centimeter of the very square space. But, it isn’t! It’s full of browns and reds and soft colors and soft lights. It’s earthen. It’s in the middle of this circular room that feels like the anteroom to some larger gothic architecture. Or, maybe just a hole in the ground.

Wright’s apartment is gigantic, with rooms adjoining a large, main room with wooden floors. This room is totally bare except for a desk in the middle of it. As a result, the eye is drawn both to his academic pursuit of knowledge and his departure from that space. He sits in on the floor in front of the desk, waiting for his sins to confront him. He stares at the door he thought about going through for so long and desperately needs to close. Mythological payback does not fool around. The myths show us that obsession with dominating life by conquering death prevents us from addressing the things which will eat our souls.

For one, there’s a giant head of Mercury that you see through the course of the movie. In Roman mythology, you might know him as being the analog for the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods. He’s fleet of foot, yes. And he brings word of the gods. Whether our intrepid assholes believe in a supreme being or not, they are definitely willing to play in the territory of the gods to find the answer to that question.

However, they are specifically and deliberately journeying to the afterlife. In Roman mythology, Mercury plays the role of escorting the dead to the underworld. And, with that in mind, you can see why his bust looms large in the eye of the film. These pesky kids are kicking stern-faced Mercury around. He knows it and he is not happy. There will be consequences.

Throughout the movie, we periodically see workers restoring a triptych. As the credits roll, the shot is solely of these paintings. It’s a work featuring the theft of fire from Mount Olympus by Prometheus. Here’s a god who saw that we mere mortals were cold and in the dark. He stole fire and gave it to us freely. For this, Zeus chained that dude to a mountain and let a bird eat his liver every day for basically like forever, until Hercules, a divine but very human man, showed back up to return the favor. This idea of stealing light from the gods is intrinsic into peaking behind the veil of death. We aren’t meant to be able to know some things. And it takes divine intervention for us to realize them.

There’s a look and a feel to this movie that connects with me in a way I have a hard time putting specific words to. I love movies about life and death and risking our very minds in pursuit of secret knowledge. Consequently, I dig real hard on the big idea of this flick. There’s madness there. A deep, satisfying craving for stealing wisdom that belongs to beings mightier than ourselves. And, in the case of Flatliners, to go all that way only to find that our future, our afterlife, is haunted by demons of our own creation. We were our own gods all along! Maybe.

This Friday, the sequel comes out. Ostensibly, Keifer Sutherland is reprising his role. I love anything Ellen Page does and Diego Luna is fiery and sexy and passionate. I hope it doesn’t go the way of a simple horror movie. The original Flatliners was a major studio production at Columbia Pictures starring big-time talent, all directed by a major league filmmaker. I feel like major studios have ceded wild arthouse mashups like this to indie films. I’m hopeful that we might get something in the vein of the original. mother! was a real shot in the arm for confidence that we can see major releases of weirder movies like these. Regardless, I encourage you to give the original Flatliners a look.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.