Monday, June 21, 2010


I first watched this movie at a slumber party when I was in my early teenage years. It was long before I ever got into medicine and even longer before I even knew what palliative care was. I haven't seen or thought of this movie in awhile. So when I pulled it out and watched it again recently my first thought was, wow, what crazy 1990's hair. My second thought was, this is not nearly as scary as it was when I was 13. My third thought was how interesting this movie is from a palliative care perspective.

Flatliners was released in 1990 with the tagline "Some lines shouldn't be crossed" (Flatliners. Get it?). A group of 5 medical students are trying to answer that truly age old question (not to be cliche), what happens after death?

Nelson, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is the ringleader and starts the movie off with the line "Today is a good day to die". When asked why Nelson would do this he responds, "...To see if there is anything out there beyond death. Philosophy failed. Religion failed. Now it's up to the physical sciences. I think mankind deserves to know." They go about this by inducing clinical death for one to several minutes followed by a quick resuscitation by their colleagues. At first things go well and they feel very reassured that there is something out there.

The movie is categorized as a Thriller. The trouble starts when the students who have experienced near death begin seeing physical manifestations of their pasts while they're awake. "Somehow we've brought our sins back physically. And they're pissed." Coming to terms with their pasts (and getting beaten up a bit by them) seems the price they have to pay for the knowledge they want.

It's interesting to put this movie into the context of the times . In a 1990 review of the film, Rita Kempley of the Washington Post stated, "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." Is she saying this is backlash from the '80s? It would be interesting to know if that were really true. Were there really more movies about dying at that time? And for those reasons? Or maybe its just like why there are so many vampire movies, books, television series coming out now: it just cycles through.

Some critics felt that Flatliners really pulled the punch when addressing life after death. It doesn't really answer the question of what is out there, the question that the medical students risked so much to find out. Others felt we are meant to believe that after death is a purgatory, a place to atone for one's sins. I tend to think that a campy '90s thriller probably isn't the best venue for such a debate.

Interesting movie trivia: Writer Peter Filardi was apparently inspired by the near death experience a friend had while on the operating table.

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